When Colby returned carrying souvenirs from his visit to the Great Barrier Reef on last Thursday night's episode of ''Survivor,'' Jerri probably wasn't the only one who raised an eyebrow. The hardbodied Texan won points with his teammates by handing out exotic looking coral, but not without running afoul of Australia's environmental policies. Not only is hard coral like the kind he collected an endangered species, the Great Barrier Reef is a nature conserve protected under Australian and international laws. ''It's completely illegal to remove anything from the marine park, even a bag of sand,'' says Eddie Hegerle, former director of the Australian Marine Society. ''And that holds true for coral especially.''
Because some kinds of hard coral can take years to grow mere inches, and more than 5,000 species of fish and countless other aquatic creatures build their homes in the sturdy stuff, protecting all 135,000 miles of the Great Barrier Reef has become a hot button topic for environmentalists, who believe most of the world's coral reefs could disappear in the next 40 years due to climate change alone. ''Reef ecosystems are among the most endangered around the world because there are so many threats to them, ranging from harvesting to pollution to global warming,'' says Craig Hoover, senior program officer of the World Wildlife Fund's trade monitoring program. ''They're hit from all angles at this point.''
Though it isn't clear whether Colby plucked fresh coral while snorkeling on the reef (a more serious infraction) or collected dead coral on the beach, his handful of see worthy souvenirs may have a hefty legacy. ''Every time someone picks up a rock or a flower in a wildlife preserve, it has an impact on the ecosystem,'' says Hoover. ''Then when tens of millions of people see what you do on television and then go to a reef and say, 'Hey I want to do what Colby did' and maybe snap off a piece of coral underwater, it's significant.'' Plus, Colby's gift could have created a customs pile-up for his fellow survivors. ''Like ivory, hard corals can't be exported without a permit,'' explains John Waugh, a deputy executive director of the World Conservation Union.
Who would have thought a few chunks of aquarium filler would be so darn heavy? Not ''Survivor'' producer Mark Burnett, who tells EW.com, ''On behalf of myself, production and the survivors involved, we extend our sincerest apologies for this error,'' he says. ''I remain steadfast in my commitment to environmental concerns and continue to put forth great effort in order to improve a situation whenever possible. Please know that this was an honest mistake which we deeply regret.''
Burnett is getting off easy this time. Jokes Australian embassy spokesperson Sandi Logan, ''We usually feed the offending parties to the dingos.''