Steve Irwin in an undated publicity photo. Irwin, the Australian naturalist who won worldwide acclaim, has died in a marine accident off Australia's northeast coast. (MGM/Greg Barrett/Handout/Reuters)

Famed "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin was killed yesterday when he was stung in the heart by a stingray over which he was swimming in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for a video shoot.

Irwin, 44, apparently frightened the creature by getting to close, bringing on the animal’s self-protective attack.

Stingrays have a poisonous, barbed tail which can cause excruciating pain if a person is struck by it, but such attacks are only very rarely fatal. Irwin was struck in the chest, however, and the barb appears to have pierced his heart. It was an extremely rare and strange incident.

In his television programs and theatrical movie, Irwin gained great fame for engaging in close contact with crocodiles, poisonous snakes and spiders, and other dangerous creatures. His continual message was that we should respect nature, understand it, and protect animals from abuse and extinction.

Irwin frequently had highly dangerous encounters with animals, always warning his TV viewers of what the dangers were but telling us we should not be afraid of nature and should understand it and live in harmony with it. Part of his appeal, however, was the daredevil nature of his exploits, and the number of times he placed himself in jeopardy almost guaranteed that he would eventually be hurt or killed during one of these encounters. Yesterday it happened.

Irwin was an immensely likeable personality, and his many fans and admirers will miss him. The message he tried to send, that nature is dangerous but is no threat to us if we let creatures go their own way and don’t disturb them, is one that he ironically disobeyed in his work and which eventually killed him.

Nature is dangerous indeed and will often kill indiscriminately if we let her go her own way. The only thing that saves us from wanton destruction is our natural human inclination to harness the forces of nature to our own advantage and increased safety.  Knowledge, reason, and a sense of benevolence are essential to such stewardship, as Irwin continuously pointed out in his life’s work. But only through harnessing nature can we live well. That is the message we may best take from Irwin’s life and tragic death.