Harry Butler, the original Steve Irwin, has died

Harry Butler. Image: In The Wild

Long before croc hunter Steve Irwin burst onto TV screens yelling “crikey”, a generation of Australians learnt about the landscape and its inhabitants from a bloke called Harry Butler.

Dr William Henry “Harry” Butler, AO, CBE, geologist, naturalist and environmental consultant, has died of cancer in Perth. He was 85.

Butler’s 1970s ABC TV show, In the Wild, introduced the nation to its wildlife as he roamed the outback with the trademark saying: “There’s a little mate of mine in there, let’s see if he’ll come out,” shoving his arm down burrows, hollow longs and other places instinct told the audience you should never stick a hand.

He was David Attenborough, Irwin, and Deadly 60’s Steve Backshall all rolled into one: wise, fearless and endlessly curious about his native land and its inhabitants. He learnt the hard way, having been born 1930 in an outback construction camp where his mother died during childbirth. By age 9, he was in an orphanage.

Butler straddled challenge between development and preservation of the natural environment. He worked for Chevron as a geologist and consultant, most notably for the Barrow Island oilfield, introducing corporations to the value in preserving wildlife and nature.

But his environmental credentials were severely damaged over his support for the Franklin River dam as a spokesperson for the Tasmanian Government, pitching him against UK botanist David Bellamy, initially slated as co-host on the TV series. Butler resigned from the role in the wake of the backlash.

Other opposition to the World Heritage listing of stage two in Kakadu National Park because of degraded, as well as opposition to allowing Aboriginal land rights that could block development also left him at odds with his many fans, despite the fact that he’d learnt his appreciation of the landscape from Aboriginal people as a child.

But will be remembered best, dressed in khaki, a floppy wide-brimmed hat ringed with bullets, looking like he’d just demobbed from a WWII unit, hosting the In The Wild TV series.

In The Wild ran for between 1976 and 1981 with 26, 30-minute episodes, exploring outback Australian flora and fauna. He was a true bushman, having trained as a fitter and turned and been raised in the remote WA bush.

It was a smash hit for ABC and also spawned the sold out book In The Wild, and follow ups In the Wild (Part II) and Looking at the Wild.

Butler also co-wrote the song “Sun Arise” with the now disgraced fellow Western Australian Rolf Harris. He was named the 1979 Australian of the Year, an honour he shared with the Aboriginal senator Neville Bonner.

He was added to the list of Australia’s Living Treasures in 2012, the same year Butler received the Order of Australia Medal to go with the CBE from 1980.

He spent much of his working life rehabilitating landscapes scarred by clients such as Chevron, BHP and Readymix. The Jabiluka uranium mine was replanted under Butler’s stewardship.

Among the animals named in Butler’s honour are insects, fish, reptiles and fish.

Here’s an example of Butler in action on In The Wild, meeting some drunk pygmy possums.

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