SYDNEY — His death was bizarre — stabbed through his wet suit by a stingray. Yet the continuing work of Australia’s most famous wildlife activist is winning worldwide acclaim in the cause of conservation.

TV changed the guy in khaki shorts, shirt and heavy boots from someone who just tried to save animals in the wild into a megastar. Where other conservationists failed, he clicked. So much public support poured in to the modest Irwin family home that they kept buying tracts of land around the world to build wildlife rescue parks. The next one was to have been — and may still be — in San Diego.

While Australian Prime Minister John Howard gave a moving speech at Irwin’s funeral, the star of a packed farewell was Steve’s pint-size, 8-year-old daughter, Bindi.

“We filmed together, caught crocodiles together, and we loved being together,” the little voice told the world. “Daddy made this zoo so everyone could come and learn to love all animals. He was working to change the world so everyone would love wildlife like he did.”

Grande dame of American talk shows Barbara Walters has secured rights to be the first to interview grieving widow Terri. When the then Terri Raines, a veterinarian from Oregon, first met the irrepressible young Steve, she asked if he had a girlfriend. He said he did and whistled for his dog Sui. Terri took to the wild man immediately.

Their second child, son Robert, became an unfortunate TV star at the age of 1 month. In a crocodile pen his father supported the baby in one arm with a chicken carcass in the other. Cameras caught the snapping jaws of a crocodile. World TV audiences were outraged. Irwin barely escaped a charge of child endangerment.

History still, of course, has to pronounce on his highly unorthodox methods of handling fearsome crocodiles, venomous snakes and all manner of creepy crawlies. No. 1 fan Terri never wavered in her support. “What Steve saw as awesome,” she says, “was the beauty of creatures others fear or misunderstand.”

Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki, who has done as much as anyone to urge the world to save the planet, is a supporter: “Steve Irwin vulgarized environmental issues in the best possible way and so popularized them. The world benefited enormously from him. He not only identified threatened species but hugged and kissed them, making viewers want to save them as well.”

At first Australians were aghast at the antics of this breezy, jumping upstart. Slowly they came to approve the benefits. When Japanese tourists began flocking to his first zoo the Australians also began to applaud. Soon Tourism Minister Fran Bailey was calling Irwin the best ambassador for tourism Australia ever had. Soon 500,000 Americans a year were flying Down Under. Canberra used the Irwin TV appeal to tell planeloads of arriving tourists about this country’s strict quarantine laws. Steve used the proceeds of that gig to build a koala hospital.

Critics are vocal, however, even in death. British film star and animal rights activist Virginia McKenna — fondly remembered for her movie “Born Free” — laments Irwin’s crocodile-wrestling displays. “He put himself where few others would dare to tread,” she says.

“I can understand how that kind of television had global mass appeal. Yet I fear there will be some out there seeking to emulate his bravura who will not survive such close encounters. I wish Steve had been able to keep his distance. If he had, he might still be here.”

That mild rebuke pales against the acid tongue of England-based feminist-author-academic Germaine Greer. The Melbourne-reared Germaine is Australia’s return export in retaliation for our first settlers, London criminals. “There was no habitat, no matter how fragile or finely balanced, that Irwin hesitated to barge into, trumpeting his wonder to the skies,” she wrote after his death.

“Every creature he brandished at the camera was in distress. Every snake badgered by Irwin was at a huge disadvantage. The animal world has finally taken its revenge.”

That’s our Germaine. She who owns a 57-hectare patch of Queensland rain forest and visits occasionally from London to inspect protected snakes. Dismissed farm employee Jamie Nicholson has given his thoughts on why she keeps the Gold Coast hinterland farm. “It’s a big wank,” he says. “It’s all about ego.”

Steve Irwin died an agonizing death while filming underwater on the Great Barrier Reef, off Cairns. Only a couple of stingray deaths have ever been recorded in Australians waters. Still, it’s a warning to tourists who flock to the reef every year to marvel at the coral formations.

The Crocodile Hunter is gone. His gee-whiz enthusiasm will live on, however, via the amazing film clips of the many Irwin close encounters with death among the creatures he loved. His unique work on behalf of the planet’s wildlife will hopefully continue to inspire a new generation of true environmentalists.

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