BR native hunts crocodiles worldwide — to save them from extinction

BR native Steve Platt travels globe in effort to find, protect rare reptiles

It’s easy to see that Steve Platt is used to hiking with his head ducked toward the ground. He takes big, considered steps with his head jutting forward slightly, and his eyes discerning.

The Baton Rouge native has embarked on a quest through countries across Southeast Asia, including to remote areas of Laos and Myanmar, to find and conserve some of the most endangered types of reptiles in the world.

For his efforts, Platt, 53, was awarded the Castillo Prize for Crocodile Conservation on May 29 in Lake Charles at the biennial meeting of the Crocodile Specialist Group, an international body of 503 crocodile researchers from 26 countries.

“Steve is willing to do things most people don’t want to,” said Thomas Rainwater, a wildlife toxicologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in South Carolina, who nominated Platt for the Castillo Prize. “He’s made a niche for himself.”

The species Platt works with are usually so rare that documenting their most basic facts of life remains the biggest challenge. He once searched for years just to confirm that a turtle species still exists in the wild, Platt said.

Though he has worked with several types of crocodiles and alligators, much of his work since 2011 has centered around the Siamese crocodile, a reptile that is incredibly difficult to find in its natural habitat.

His first fieldwork with the species was in Vietnam in 1999 when his team piled into small boats at night and explored wetlands where he says there should have been about a thousand of the Siamese crocodiles. But after hours of searching with head lamps, their boats snagging on fish nets every few meters, no one could find a single one. That was when Platt realized something was wrong.

Later, in Thailand, he learned there were likely fewer than 10 of the species in the wild in that area — and every egg that he could find was infertile, meaning there were probably no males in the local population and that an endangered species was on its way to extinction.

“A lot of conservation is just crisis-driven science,” Platt said, “so we don’t have the luxury of asking about basic biology — we need to save (a species) from going extinct.”

Even today, in all his years of research, Platt estimates that he has seen fewer than 10 Siamese crocodiles in the wild.

“Sometimes you feel like you’re looking for Sasquatch,” he said.

Platt and his team have since spent four years managing a breeding program for the Wildlife Conservation Society at Lao Zoo near Vientiane, the nation’s capital. The program, which finishes its work this year, involves incubating eggs and raising Siamese crocodiles in a space that’s safe from predators before researchers carefully release them into the wild.

Ironically, there are more than 700,000 Siamese crocodiles held in farms across the world, Platt said, but traders harvesting these crocodiles for their skins don’t exactly have preservation in mind — they often breed them with saltwater crocodiles, which grow faster and develop higher-quality skins for use in luxury items. In those situations, he says, the Siamese crocodile’s genetic integrity is lost.

Platt spent five years as an associate professor of biology at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, but found the calling for fieldwork was too strong to ignore. About one month after receiving tenure in 2010, he resigned. He said he did so because his wife could not find any research work in such a small town and they wanted to do fieldwork together.

Platt also does similar conservation research with turtles. Over the better part of a decade, he looked for Arakan forest turtles, which had not been seen in the wild by researchers since 1906. But Platt says the turtles have been known to rural communities in Myanmar for so long that many had a name for them. He and his team eventually found a live turtle in 2009, in the middle of a thunderstorm.

In his turtle fieldwork, Platt works closely with his wife, Kalyar Platt, a Myanmar biologist with the Turtle Survival Alliance. They met during his first fieldwork in Burma in 1999, and she often translates while the two of them travel and do research together.

The turtle fieldwork is especially arduous.

Platt says he and his team often travel to villages in Myanmar that have never seen a foreigner. In 2000, an elderly man in one rural town told Platt that the last foreigners he’d seen were Japanese soldiers in World War II.

The journey from one town to the next is also physically demanding. Platt says that for a two-week stretch, he lived entirely on eggs. “It’s a good thing I like eggs,” he said.

Rick Hudson, who oversees the Platts’ turtle research as the president of the Turtle Survival Alliance, and also nominated Platt for the Castillo Prize, said he deserved the award for his impressive speed of publication as well as his thorough fieldwork.

“There’s not much wasted time in Steve Platt’s day,” Hudson said.

But after all his travels, Platt still returns about once a year to Baton Rouge, where his father still lives. The Catholic High and LSU graduate says he still considers the city his home.