Bindi Irwin has come a long way since courageously stepping in front of a crowd of mourners to pay tribute to her late father Steve at his memorial service almost seven years ago.

It was a September day in 2006 when a khaki-clad eight-year-old Irwin trotted on stage, told the world how much she loved her daddy and vowed to continue his wildlife conservation work. Later this year that little girl turns "the big 1-5" and appears to be well on track with her ecological mission.

"G'day, g'day, this is Bindi," Irwin says breezily over the phone from her home at Australia Zoo on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, sounding every bit like her father's daughter. "Hey, did you know we have a crocodile here called Lucy?"

Irwin is on the phone to talk about her starring role in the new family adventure movie, Return to Nim's Island.

In the sequel to the 2008 film starring Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster and Gerard Butler, the fast-talking eco-warrior is in her element as the eponymous Nim, a feisty young girl who is battling to save the remote island she lives on with her father from development.

It's a serious case of art imitating life for Irwin, who is currently campaigning with her own family - mother Terri and younger brother Bob - to save her late father's 135,000ha wildlife reserve on Cape York from being "strip-mined".

The reserve was bought by the Howard Government in 2007 as a tribute to Steve and, according to the Irwins, is home to various plant and insect species which have "enormous potential" for medical research.

In 2010, it was granted environmental protection by Queensland's Bligh Government under the Wild Rivers law.

However, news that the State's Newman Government is planning to scrap the law, paving the way for the development of a bauxite mine, owned by Cape Alumina, on a stretch of land within the reserve has left the Irwin family fighting to ensure its protection.

"Because I had this experience in my real life I was able to relate that back to the character and understand where Nim was coming from," Irwin says, before pointing me to the online petition about the reserve, which has 400,000 signatures.

Filmed on the Gold Coast, Return to Nim's Island sees Irwin co-star alongside Matthew Lillard, John Waters and former Neighbours youngster, Toby Wallace not to mention a host of animals, including a very cute, albeit fishy-breathed, sealion and some of her friends from Australia Zoo.

"Look out for Jenny the white Burmese python and Kermit the iguana," she says excitedly.

Irwin insists her character is "a bit more uppity" than she is in real life but the pair do share a similar - decidedly untypical - way of life. Like Nim, Irwin studies via distance education and, to her, living among crocodiles and rhinos is perfectly normal.

"A lot of people get this mixed up - the difference between normal and common - and there is a difference," Irwin says.

"I would like to think that my life is certainly not common. I don't know anyone else who lives in a zoo and has the life I do.

"But I would like to think of myself as a normal teenager and that I have friends and I'm just like everyone else." Still, not many of her friends have had their lives play out quite so publicly.

Irwin and brother Bob have grown up in the media spotlight, a result of the success of their parents' show, The Crocodile Hunter, which was watched by more than 500 million people around the world.

The siblings are now stars in their own right - she's a TV presenter and her nine-year-old brother has just released a series of children's books, Robert Irwin: Dinosaur Hunter.

But while Irwin insists the pair love their "uncommon" life it's hard to imagine how one so young deals with grief when the whole world is watching.

"It's kind of like losing a piece of your heart and you never get that back," Irwin says of losing her father, who died after being pierced in the chest by a stingray barb while filming an underwater documentary.

"But I think you have the option of curling up in a corner and saying 'OK, forget everything I'm done'.

"Or you can pick yourself up, rise above it and say 'I am never ever going to forget him, but I am going to dedicate my life to celebrating everything that dad lived and died for, and make sure his legacy continues on forever'.

"And that's what I've chosen to do.

"Every day I want to make him proud because he was my living, breathing superhero and I feel like he still is my inspiration."

Indeed, where Sir David Attenborough once recognised Steve Irwin as a "born communicator" who taught others about the wonder and excitement of the natural world, so too his daughter is following suit through her TV shows, public appearances and even her latest movie.

"I am in such a unique position, to be able to bring my message of wildlife conservation to such a great audience," Irwin says.

"I am such a strong believer in kid empowerment and I hope to be able to encourage others to want to make a difference and stand up for what they believe in."

The West Australian

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