Western Australian conservationist Harry Butler has died in a Perth hospital at the age of 85 after succumbing to a two-year fight against cancer. Harry, who was a member of SSAA for many years, struck a distinctive image in his trademark bushman’s hat and is best remembered for hosting the ABC television program In The Wild. The series began in 1976 and ran until 1981, with Harry bringing his beloved outback into the living rooms of mainstream Australia via the medium of the TV screen. The calm, mellow delivery taught a whole new audience about the importance of conservation. A book of the series proved just as popular and a follow-up also sold in huge numbers.
SSAA National CEO Tim Bannister spoke with Harry several years ago and recalls him describing the relationship of hunting and conservation going hand in glove. “I remember, as a youngster, watching Harry on the TV and being in awe of his knowledge of the great outdoors and his relaxed manner as he seemed to know the behaviour of everything from snakes to platypuses,” said Tim. “He had a genuine love of the outdoors and helped a generation of Australians learn how to appreciate our unique flora and fauna.”
Tim also stressed that it was no mean feat how Harry managed to marry together the seemingly conflicting interests of major industry and environmental supporters. “He always tried to work with the best solutions in mind,” said Tim. “He could work with mining companies while still actively promoting the environment. His efforts invariably left the environment in a better condition than before. Harry was a hunter, an environmentalist, a communicator and a true Aussie icon.”
Such characteristics were instantly imparted to Harry’s viewers by his larger-than-life look on his TV show. The bullets on Harry’s hatband marked him out as the real thing. For when he travelled around the outback, he always carried a firearm with him, ready to shoot any feral animals that strayed into his path.
In 1979, Harry was awarded Australian of the Year and in 1980, he was Western Australian Citizen of the Year and awarded a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE). Further recognition came when he was added to the list of Australia’s Living Treasures in 2012 and presented with an Order of Australia Medal. Interestingly, a species of Mulga snake, the Pseudechis butleri, and a spider, the Synothele butleri, are named after Harry.
Harry was brought up in the wilds of WA by his father William after his mother Pearl had died giving birth to him. A love of nature was stirred in him from an early age. After leaving high school, he trained as a fitter and turner then worked as a marine engineer. Harry switched his attention to teaching and spent 10 years lecturing in biology and natural science in Australia as well as the United States and Canada.
One of Harry’s major achievements came when he worked as an environmental consultant to Chevron in the development of the Barrow Island oil and gas project. Harry is credited with helping to preserve rare plant and animal species on the island as work on the oil field went ahead. It has been said that the island stands as a miracle of nature coexisting with big industry.
Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett paid tribute to the efforts of one of the state’s revered figures. “I knew Harry personally. He was an environmental pioneer whose dedication to conservation and nature was tireless,” he said.
Harry, whose wife of 44 years Maggie died before him, had three children. His son Trevor spoke about the fighting spirit of his father. “He had been ill for nearly two years but amazingly up until three months ago he was still messing around on the farm and driving a tractor and chopping wood,” he said.