The Revelator’s John Platt on Endangered Species

Historian and philosopher Yuval Harari writes, “When the first humans reached Australia about 45,000 years ago, they quickly drove to extinction 90% of its large animals. This was the first significant impact that Homo sapiens had on the planet’s ecosystem. It was not the last.” This week on Sea Change Radio, we discuss extinction with longtime journalist and founder of the environmental news site, The RevelatorJohn PlattWe look at efforts around the planet to save endangered plants and animals, explore the plight of smaller, often overlooked creatures, and examine the effects of war on fragile ecosystems.  

00:01 Narrator: This is Sea Change Radio, covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:13 John Platt: And then what happens if you lose a tiger from an ecosystem? Then you lose all the all the functions that it provided. Maybe small herbivores and they’re going to go out of control and eat all the vegetation down. We’ve seen that in this country with when when Wolves died out the the deer took off. So I mean there are some species we may eventually only see in zoos, but I hope we can avoid that.

00:46 Narrator: In and philosopher Yuval Harari writes. “When the first humans reached Australia about 45,000 years ago, they quickly drove to extinction. 90% of its large animals. This was the first significant impact that Homo sapiens had on the planet’s ecosystem. It was not the last.” This week on Sea Change Radio we discuss extinction with longtime journalist and founder of the Environmental News site, the Revelator, John Platt. We look at efforts around the planet to save endangered plants and animals, explore the plight of smaller, often overlooked creatures and examine the effects of war on fragile ecosystems.

1:44 Alex Wise: I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by John Platt. John is the editor and founder of the Revelator. John, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

1:53 John Platt: Thank you very much.

1:55 Alex Wise: First, why don’t you tell our listeners what the Revelator is – what your organization’s mission is, and maybe a little bit on your background in the extinction space.

2:05 John Platt: Yeah, the Revelator is an environmental news and commentary site. We’re published by the Center for Biological Diversity, which is a nonprofit devoted to environmental. Choose we’re editorially independent from them, but we’d still tell a lot of the same types of subjective stories covering the extinction crisis, climate change, oceans, clean water and environmental justice and we’re trying to tell stories that aren’t being told in other places and really influence people who are super involved in the environment and care very deeply and passionately about this stuff. I’ve been an environmental journalist now for over 15 years. I’ve freelanced for 10 of that and I started writing about endangered species because I thought that was something that wasn’t being covered in the general media. I was writing for Scientific American and a bunch of other places, and covered well over 1000 species. I kind of stopped counting once I hit 1000, and I’ve written more than a few species obituaries over the years, so it’s been a big part of my life and it’s something that I find infinitely interesting because there’s so many interesting species to write about and so many interesting people researching and trying to save these incredible creatures.

3:20 Alex Wise: And you dive into the actual species that aren’t necessarily covered by mainstream media, as often you’ll see a snippet, maybe at the end of the PBS news hour about some panda made. Or the megafauna gets a lot more press, but we’ve done some pieces as of late that I thought were really interesting in terms of rats and moles and voles and how important they are in the food chain and in our environment in so many little cracks and corners these are not the sexiest animals, but they mean a lot to in the big picture, don’t they?

3:59 John Platt: They do, you know, I love writing about species. We don’t look at very often. Yeah, I could write about tigers every day and love it actually and really, enjoy. It and I love tiger celeb rhinos. But the little things, the bats, the bugs. The fish we don’t necessarily see them, and they could be really important. They could also be really important to human culture. The sandy mole rat, which is a Ukrainian species. It’s on their currency. But it’s only real stronghold habitat is was invaded by tanks with the Russian invasions. So who knows how well they’re doing right now. And I love taking a look at these these species. That have little roles ’cause it’s all. It’s all a domino effect is we lose one thing we lose more and we lose the threads that ties all together.

4:50 Alex Wise: Can you give us a little bit more of a snapshot of how a small species can affect an entire region?

5:00 John Platt: Right, well, let’s say a plant goes extinct, So what happens to the pollinator that used to relate to that plant? Maybe the pollinator relies on a specific plan so the pollinator dies, but then what happens to what ate the plant? So maybe you lose out some of the material. I know that the the plant relied on if that happens. What happens to the creature that ate the plan? Does something lose? Does that suffer? Do you lose habitat? Do you know some some species love to live underneath a certain plant or a hot under hide under the leaves or rely on the the seeds and spread the seeds through there through there? Through their dung and through their droppings. So once you lose one piece, the whole rest of the puzzle can start to fall apart.

5:51 Alex Wise: And what comes to mind when you think of some of these small? You mentioned the sandy mole rat, but that’s in Ukraine. What about in North America?

6:00 John Platt: All in North America. Of all there’s all kinds of stuff. I mean, we’re becoming a country where we’re really generalist species thrive – raccoons and coyotes and things like that they can. They can spread. They live just about anywhere humans live. They can, they can adapt. So we’ve got the Idaho ground squirrel, which, as you might guess, is in Idaho now. There’s plenty of types of squirrels out there and squirrels. For common, I live in the Portland region and there’s you got the same grey squirrels that exist all over the country, but there were native squirrels that don’t that barely exist anymore. You barely see them, and these are creatures that grew up around certain types of trees. They ate or buried the seeds and let those trees propagate. Maybe other species might have a slightly different gut Biome, so they eat the seed and digest it completely, instead of having something to leave behind. Maybe they react, maybe they eat something different and we. We they’re not interested in the native trees, so you end up losing the connectivity.

7:14 Alex Wise: I think how humans react to the endangerment of certain species is pretty revealing in terms of it’s very much of a grass is always greener interest. For example, when you mentioned the Idaho ground squirrel I, I thought of when I did an exchange program in Australia when I was in college. And my homestay mother was just fascinated with squirrels, and I just thought of them as the most mundane thing, and it was like, how can you care about squirrels? She was like, “do you see a lot of squirrels there in America?” and I was like “Oh yeah, we see a lot of squirrels” but there were like kangaroos everywhere and the birds in the Sydney Public Gardens were like out of Doctor Dolittle to me, so I guess it kind of when it’s right in front of your nose, you don’t appreciate it as much and what you’re doing is highlighting things that we need to appreciate because once they’re gone then it’s too late to appreciate them sometimes.

8:10 John Platt: Exactly, yeah, and sometimes we do get that jaded effect. I mean, there I remember a case where there was a a cave spider in Texas that was endangered and saving it would mean canceling a highway project. Well people like, why save a spider? Spiders are awful, spiders are gross, but spiders eat the but eat the bugs that we consider pests. So there’s a human element to you know it’s protecting our crops and our own human health by protecting these species. And yeah, OK, some of them might be buggy or ugly. But that’s all in the eye of the beholder. I think we have a moral responsibility to protect things, and it protects us in the meantime. But who could know?

(Music break)

10:08 Alex Wise: This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to John Platt, he’s the editor and founder of the Revelator. So John, you mentioned how the sandy mole rat is endangered right now in Ukraine, why don’t you explain how scientists are trying to track fragile ecosystems in the face of war. You’ve done some work in this area.

10:40 John Platt: Yeah, well during war, it’s awfully hard. You can’t put yourself at risk trying to study an animal or granted there’s people that do that no matter what. They when these scientists go out in the field, they’re often put them in danger of diseases or accidents or even violence under the best of situations. There’s plenty of tales of people who’ve been out researching a species and gotten kidnapped or threatened but scientists are a hearty stock. They will look for something as long as they can and look for evidence. So what they’re looking for is evidence that something exists, and sometimes that can be directive sighting. Evidence that it left the creature left behind something at 8 something it chewed up on a burro. For you can get DNA out of various various fur and droppings in skin samples, so they’re looking for evidence that something exists and they’re looking for the interplay. What does it rely on? What relies on it? What are the factors of the environment that it depends on, and what are the factors affecting the local ecosystem? That are threatening it. So once you understand that stuff, once you understand where something lives, what it relies on and what’s affecting it, you can. Come up with a plan to understand and mitigate those threats. If you need to protect a food source, great. If you need to reduce poaching, great. That doesn’t. Necessarily. The scientist owners really always have the tools to do that, but they can give those tools to other scientists and governments to NGO’s to try to enable change to protect.

12:24 Alex Wise: And it highlights the fragile interplay we have with our own food sources. Speaking of war torn environments, explain the plight of the Barbary Lion in northern Africa if you will, John.

12:41 John Platt: Well, the plight is that it no longer exists. It’s gone. It’s been gone for a long time, but no one knows exactly when or how it disappeared. It was poached. It was haunted by the great white hunters. You know, I use that term sarcastically, of course. But a paper published a few years ago estimates that one of the very last sightings was in a forest that was then bombed out of existence. That’s probably when the Barbary Lion died out in the wild, and this is a species that. It’s a huge part of the culture of northern Africa. It’s on flags. It’s on currency, and there are still some that exist in captivity that have, uh, they’re mixed with other subspecies. They have a small amount of Barbary lion DNA, but the species itself is gone and this is this is a case where war just wiped out a species.

13:41 Alex Wise: And if you can illuminate the push and pull that an environmental journalist witnesses when it comes to man and it’s constant need for progress and expansion versus our flora and fauna, and how I say, are how the planet is affected by man. I remember in the 80s it was logging not far from where you are in in the Pacific Northwest and the spotted owl became a poster child for hippies and environmentalists as like these, absurd environmentalists want to stop progress because of a spotted owl. Well, but now with hindsight we can see those hippies and environmentalists were onto something, can’t we?

14:24 John Platt: Yeah we can and I think we we only have to look back at the last two years at the pandemic, which the exact origins of the coronavirus are still a little bit unclear, but one of the most likely examples is it started in the wild meat trade and brought and people brought it over to humans. So what we’re doing is we’re bringing wild animals together. These meat markets aren’t just one species. It’s not just cattle or chicken, it’s there’s a whole bunch of different live animals transmitting diseases back and forth to each other. And then we’re bringing these animals closer to humans outside of away from the forests or wherever else they were they were caught. And then humans are creating these viruses and they’re mutating and becoming new things. We’re getting this, I mean right now in this country, we’re having millions of chickens be slaughtered. Not for food, but because they’re they’ve caught the bird flu, the avian flu, and this is spreading because of industrial agriculture. And once it hits a chicken farm, it just ravages through the entire population. So there are arguments very strongly within the current pandemics. And I’ll say that plurally to embrace a slowdown of growth, or even a degrowth function. Now granted that I mean no one wants to hear that. No one wants to hear, well, you’re going to have to deal with less, so you’re going to have to buy less. You can have to use less.

15:50 Alex Wise: Especially a politician or a policymaker, when they have to talk to their constituency, right?

15:56 John Platt: Right

15:57 Alex Wise: Because our countries are so often measured by growth and GDP etc.

16:02 John Platt: Numbers, what are you going to do?

16:04 Alex Wise: So we did a piece a few years ago on the vaquita porpoise in the Gulf of California. You were talking about how we see species become endangered because of man’s appetites. This is a perfect example of it.

16:21 John Platt: Yeah, and this is a really interesting story and an important one for people to watch. I’ve been watching the vaquita porpoise decline for years. There were 150 then there were 100. Then they’re 90. They’re being caught as bycatch from fishermen trying to catch another fish, and other species of fish called the totoaba and that fish bladder cells in China for the roughly the same equivalent price of cocaine. What you’re seeing a lot right now with endangered species is people are buying the products. And putting them away and hoping they’ll be worth more. They’re banking on extinction. They’re literally, I mean this. This speaks to the degrowth thing. How do you convince the world to degrowth when they’re actually literally investing in endangered species products? It’s crazy. But, and this is the case, I mean, how do you blame the fishermen in a poor community with not much else around them who have to earn a living, have to feed their families? How do you know there’s international pressure and the Mexican government hasn’t done enough to really try to? To take care of this change, and they’ve so now there’s moves to ban the import of Mexican shrimp, because that’s one of the other things that would be caught in that region, but I actually do hold some hope. Not just for the vaquita, but the lessons the vaquita teaches us. There are only maybe 10 left right now, but the genetic tests that have been done can show that they’re actually healthy genetically. If we could stop the decline, they will continue to breed. There are babies, there are young ones still out there swimming around. We’ve observed them. And we can get to the point where if we if we can if we can stop the attrition, they may very well bounce back. It won’t be fast. It won’t be easy, but it can happen and I have a great deal of hope out of that case.

18:18 (Music Break)

19:47 Alex Wise: This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to John Platt. He’s the editor and founder of the Revelator, so John let’s look at some of the more hopeful stories that have come up from your journalism over the years. It’s not all doom and gloom by any means. What creatures have bounced back in a way that you believe is a replicable template?

20:11 John Platt: That’s a very good question. I mean, I think wolves are a classic example. They were haunted to the point of extinction within the lower 48 and then they were reintroduced and they’ve slowly spread out their territory.  They continually persecuted. They really don’t have a very firm foothold, but they’re reproducing. They’re doing well. They manage to if they can get into a place where they can just hunt wild game instead of instead of livestock. Then they’re not persecuted. They can do just fine. I think that’s a really hopeful story, and we’re seeing that with a lot of species. Cougars have spread their territory quite a bit. They were haunted to the point where almost they were almost wiped out as well. The Florida Panther is an unusual case where they’re still getting. We’re probably losing more to roadkill than we should. Oh, or the then within it can survive, but if we can solve that problem, the Florida Panther will do well. But we’ve also got some birds. That and all kinds of things there. There’s some bees that are doing OK because we’ve protected their habitat.

21:17 Alex Wise: And what are some of the organizations that in your mind are doing the best work and where listeners might want to direct their energies in?

21:28 John Platt: Well, I’ll be selfish and identify the Center for biological diversity, which is our publisher. I’d interviewed these folks for 10 years before I came on board as a full time employee and I knew that they were really good at what they do. They used the law to protect species and in ways that when they see a gap then the law is not being followed to the to the fullest. They make sure it happens. There are a lot of other good organizations. Maybe if you’re interested in this specific species, you’ve can find an organization that’s devoted to one, or devoted to a group. I look at some broader speech groups like traffic which does a wildlife trade in, tries to protect species like that. There’s a group called the IUCN, The International Union for the Conservation of Nature that publishes the Red List that assesses the extinction risk of thousands of species around the world. They do great work, so those are a couple right off the top of my head.

22:25 Alex Wise: What about region by region? Is that a good way to kind of target your giving if you want to donate to some of these organizations? I’m thinking like we’ve talked about Australia and Africa North America. I’m also thinking of fragile ecosystems in the Arctic. These organizations can’t be everywhere, so in your giving and your volunteering you would like to ideally be local. How do you connect to some of these organizations on a local basis to make sure that their local flora and fauna are protected? I guess kind of the template has been to give to these really big organizations and then you figure you can help them all out in one fell swoop, but it doesn’t usually work.

23:12 John Platt: No, but there are local organizations and I think one of the classic examples is the River Keepers. So there’s a national and international organization for the managed small, but then for the major rivers they have their own local organizations so just Google the name of your local river and River Keepers and you might find an organization devoted to protecting from habitat loss from pollution, organizing cleanups, things like that and you can never discount the extreme value of volunteering and putting some of your own funds. If you can afford them into your local community, there may or may not be endangered species near you, but maybe you give a chance for something to bounce back and come back in.

24:03 (Music break)

25:00 Alex Wise: This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to John Platt, he’s the editor and founder of the Revelator. So can we talk about rhinos for a second, John, there’s the white rhino and the black rhino. Both very endangered. Very different stories, though. Can you kind of catch us up on all things rhino if you will?

25:21 John Platt: Yeah, well and those are the African rhinos. Then you’ve got the Asian rhinos of the one horn in India, the Sumatran rhino. All of them are very heavily poached for their horns, which is they’re ground up and sold for a variety of reasons. The northern white rhino is down to just the last two females. That’s a subspecies. They’ve got the genetic material of one of the males. Well, maybe two in in their banks and they’re working on trying to figuring out how to. They’ve also collected some eggs, so the females are too old to breed, so maybe they can get a Southern white rhino to carry the fertilized egg. That’s one of the goals the western black rhino is extinct. That was one of the ones that was wiped out by poaching, and in fact by war, just to bring things full circle. There was so much chaos during the Civil War in the countries where last lived that no one could protect it, so it was wiped out. But the southern white rhino, the eastern black rhino. They’re doing fairly well.

26:26 Alex Wise: But you believe that the rhinos and the tigers and these big megafauna that get a lot of attention from the media will not become extinct. They will come down to one or two. They may only be viewable in zoos, but we’re not going to actually lose these species most likely.

26:42 John Platt: That is a fear. You know that is a possibility. I mean the likelihood of tigers going extinct in this country in this world is very slim, but you lose populations and you lose genetics. You lose unique family trees and then what happens if you lose a tiger from an ecosystem. Then you lose all the functions that it provided. Herbivores, and they’re going to go out of control and eat all the vegetation down. We’ve seen that in this country with when wolves died out the deer took off. So I mean there are some species we may eventually only see in zoos, but I hope we can avoid that.

27:20 Alex Wise: And how can people follow your work at the Revelator and support the content you produce?

27:27 John Platt: Yeah, we’re at the Revelator org and we publish roughly three times a week, usually Monday, Wednesday, Friday. So read our articles. Share them. Subscribe to our newsletter. We’re on Twitter and Facebook. Find us there. Our material usually has a long life span. We try not to publish stuff that’s only good for a day, so there’s some deep archive of more than 1000 stories that can still have relevance today.

27:58 Alex Wise: John Platt, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:02 John Platt: Thank you.

28:17 Narrator: You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by the Beastie Boys, Gillian Welch, Bruce Cockburn and The Police. Check out our website at to stream or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken and many others, and tune into Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.