As a single adult with no nieces or nephews, I have to admit that I didn't know much about Bindi Irwin. I knew she was the daughter of the late Steve Irwin, Crocodile Hunter, I knew she's a celebrity of sorts in the world of the under 10s, but beyond that, the young Bindi was just a child who didn't really feature in my world.
But when we started brainstorming for a cover personality for this issue, the name Bindi Irwin came up and immediately we knew it would work. Bindi has the kind of appeal where even if you don't adore her, you will find her hard to dislike.
She has her critics, perhaps more because of fears that here is a girl who has not had a normal childhood, and her family has, according to some, "exploited her".
But as comedienne Fiona O'Loughlin found out earlier this year, nasty comments about Bindi have serious repercussions. Viewers called O'Loughlin spiteful and hateful after her performance on ABC music quiz show Spicks and Specks. O'Loughlin described 12-year-old Bindi as a "bit creepy" before doing an over-the-top impersonation of the child star's voice. She then made a gesture indicating Bindi was crazy, before miming a face slap.
Viewers said O'Loughlin was "tasteless", "un-Australian" and a bully. Bindi was after all, "just a little girl".
Bindi may be young, but she has an important message for those of her generation- that children can make a difference when it comes to wildlife and conservation-and it's a job that she does well, if recognition and popularity are anything to go by.
At the age of eight, Bindi appeared on the front cover of the September 2006 issue of Australian magazine New Idea, making her the youngest person to do so in the magazine's 108-year history.
She excels in her pursuits, and has in fact won accolades for them. In 2008, the then nine-year-old beat Sesame Street's Elmo to win the Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series award at the Daytime Emmy Awards. The award was for her role in the ABC TV series Bindi: The Jungle Girl. That same year, she was also named Best New Female Talent at the 50th TV Week Logie Awards.
Carrying on the legacy
It was a special family that Bindi was born into in 1998. Her father Steve was just reaching the height of international fame for the Crocodile Hunter series. The funds generated from his shows and related merchandise went back into conservation, of which the 600 hectare Australia Zoo-started as a less than one hectare park by Steve's parents in 1970-played a large part.
Bindi's childhood was no less unique, growing up in a zoo. "I am the luckiest kid in the world. I live in a zoo and get to teach other kids about animals in a fun way. What more could you want?" According to Bindi, "There is no typical day at the zoo, every day is a new adventure. After school I might help feed the echidnas, play with the elephants or go on a wildlife rescue. One thing is for sure, I am always learning whether it's at school or out in the zoo with the animals."
Conservation was probably Steve's main goal in life and the driving force behind all that he did. Sadly, he died in 2006 after he was struck in the chest by a stingray barb while filming a documentary.
While some may have seen it as the end of an era, it also sparked off the beginning of something quite special.
As Bindi told mourners at her father's memorial service and millions more watching around the world on television, "I know that Daddy had an important job. He was working to change the world so that everyone would love wildlife like he did... I don't want Daddy's passion to ever end. I want to help endangered wildlife just like he did."
And help she did. When asked if she actually believes she's meant to be continuing the conservation work of her parents, Bindi is firm with her answer. "I feel like I've been put on this earth to help things and I'm not going to do anything else. I'm here on a mission. I love doing this. People might think 'Oh, she's working too hard' but I'm really not. I'm just a normal kid. I want to do this."
Bindi: The Jungle Girl, for which she won a Daytime Emmy, was a 26-part nature documentary series for children's television and first aired on American and Australian networks in 2007.
Two months ago, Bindi Wildlife Adventures, a series of four books, was released. As co-creator of the books, Bindi says, "The idea behind the books was to write stories that were enjoyable to all kids and that were fictional, based on our family's real life adventures. "There was an author from [publishers] Random House who wrote the story, but spent a lot of time with us at the zoo. It was fun because I was the one who did the final proofing and checked that all of the facts were correct throughout the whole book. Being the co-creator of these books has been a new and special experience for me."
They're experiences nobody expects from a pre-teen, but Bindi's heritage has ensured she grows up way before her years. When it comes to school, however, Bindi is like a typical child. "I do distance education which is great because I can travel with my school work when I am away from home and it is flexible so I can work around my other commitments. It is also wonderful because there is no homework!" she exclaims.
This year, Bindi also becomes a movie star with the release of Free Willy 4: Escape from Pirate's Cove on DVD. Bindi plays Kirra, who discovers a baby Orca stranded in the lagoon near her grandfather's rundown seaside amusement park. She then embarks on a quest to lead Willy back to his pod.
"We filmed the entire movie in South Africa which was incredible. My dad had been to Africa before to film documentaries but it was my first time and I loved it. On my days off from filming I was very lucky to experience Cape Town and have many adventures such as climbing Table Mountain and playing at Boulders Beach which was full of penguins. When I had finished filming we got to go on a three-day safari in Africa," she says.
Closely tied to Bindi's conservation efforts is the idea of kid empowerment. Reflecting on Bindi Wildlife Adventures, what she hopes to achieve with the books isn't simply about telling others what to do, but to actually help them feel able to do so. "I hope that kids will feel empowered to be the hero of their own story and want to make a difference in our world. I really believe that kid empowerment is so important because as kids we are the next voters, decision-makers and the next generation making a difference on our planet. I also think that reading is so important and fun, so I hope that kids will want to read more because it opens up whole new worlds."
It's this kind of empowerment that Bindi needs as she embarks on yet another mission-to save the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve, a conservation property and a tribute to her father.
The 135,000 hectare property is in Queensland's Cape York Peninsula and is being threatened by strip mining.
According to Australia Zoo, "The proposed area for mining on the Steve Irwin Wildlife Reserve contains the head waters of irreplaceable waterways and unique biodiversity which will not recover after mining operations are finished."
A petition has been established for the purpose, and true to Bindi's kid empowerment messages, even children under 18 can sign it if they are in Australia.
It's no easy feat, but one feels that if it's something Bindi has set her heart on, it will somehow succeed.
And this girl has one final dream: "I hope that one day people will stop buying wildlife products because when the buying stops the killing can too."
ADDITIONAL SOURCES: Herald Sun; Sydney Morning Herald; The Daily Telegraph; Reader's Digest