Gamaliel Castañeda Gaytán and Rosalinda Palomo Ramos are joint awardees of the 2018 Sabin Turtle Prize for their efforts spearheading the study and conservation of some of northern Mexico’s most emblematic turtle species. Gamaliel has studied the Coahuila Box Turtle and other reptiles of the Chihuahuan Desert biome including the Bolson Tortoise. As a lecturer of herpetology at the University of Durango at Gomez Palacio, he has amplified the importance and significance of reptile biodiversity conservation, cultivating the next conservation leaders in the field. We had a chance to catch up with Castañeda about what drives his passion and what this award means to him:
Q. How did you develop your passion for wildlife?
My first big impression with wildlife was when I was 7 or 8 years old. I watched a TV show in which a huge birdeater spider from South America catch a bird for eating. That moment made me imagine how many things could be happening in wildlife, and how exciting it could be to be there watching all those things occurring in nature. At that very moment, I realized that I would be very happy walking in isolated and unknown areas of the desert, forest and rainforest.
Q. What is your favorite part of working in the field?
I really appreciate all kinds of field work, however, for me one of the most exciting are the deserts once the sun starts to hide. That moment in which temperatures go down and all crepuscular and night wildlife begins to be active is one of the most intriguing moments. It’s the perfect time to find so many creatures that begin their activity while others begin to hide in order to find refuge from predators, from darkness and sometimes from cold. Another very exciting moment is during the rains. Once the sun is covered by dark clouds, that calm before the rain, is for me the perfect atmosphere to enjoy the landscapes and contrasting conditions of deserts.
Q. Can you tell us a little about your work in the Cuatro Ciénegas basin, and the threats to the endemic turtle species there?
Since a few years ago, I have been training people to help us on surveys and conservation programs of the administrative team of Cuatro Ciénegas. I have been also helping to search for places with good habitat conditions, few water fluctuations and high density populations of Coahuila Box Turtles. I helped to identify the best areas to promote protection and conservation within the entire system of wetlands into the protected area. I also have helped to understand the current ecological situation of the Coahuila Box turtle. It is a pity that in the last 50 years, our numbers suggest a decline of more than 90% of the population In terms of abundance. If we include wetland loss, the situation is highly delicate. We need to increase research, protection and action. Right now, we are working with several partners (North American Box Turtles Committee, CONANP, SEMA Coahuila) in order to find financial support to increase environmental education, restoration and recovery programs for the species. This year, we will begin with the first attempt to raise captive turtles to understand reproductive viability and reproduction success. We hope to promote population recovery by any necessary means to avoid habitat loss and more extirpations of the species. This is not the only case, we are also trying to help the Bolson Tortoise – another dramatic story with a similar tendency. However, we will work hard to have success. We need to keep on going. We have hopes to change the future of these two species and their ecosystems.
Q. What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The most rewarding is the chance that I have to work with many people interested in same topics of biology and conservation. To learn from them, and spend time on field understanding new knowledge that helps to make better decisions with the intention to contribute to science and wildlife evolution.
Q. What do you love about turtles in particular?
Their history. It’s amazing how they have been able to survive in many kinds of ecosystems, and to adapt to apparently unsuitable environments just like deserts. Once learning from the turtles, it is amazing how some of them are capable to socialize and interact and how many species may depend on them and on burrows they build. The many form they have evolved and the capacity to hide cryptically.
Q. What does this award mean to you?
This award to me is a reminder that we are not alone. Although it seems few people care about wildlife, it’s important to know that other persons and organizations are committed to doing the same, and that you are part of a big team in which you can also find recognition about your work and your compromise. It is a reminder that you are doing something different, something that should be done in order to offset a huge tendency of mistakes against nature and all living things. The award was an awesome surprise, one that will remain in my thoughts for the rest of my life.
Q. Are you hopeful for the future of our planet’s turtles and tortoises?
Sometimes it appears that the battle would be lost, sometimes you feel regret about the lack of consciousness of many people in every corner of the world. However, I believe that will is the strongest quality of human beings. I have hope in people and on those deep and strong feelings of love and responsibility of mankind to protect nature and to promote its care.
Q. Why should everyone care about saving wildlife?
Our own survival depends on wildlife and all the interactions they have in the world we share. We are just one species with a huge responsibility to take care of all species. As thinking animals, we must have at least the minimum feeling of responsibility and compromise for nature. Not only because we are reducing resources availability for plants, animals and any living thing, but also because or own persistence depends on it. Evolution will continue even if we are not part of the complex system of nature. If we think we deserve nature, we should be conscious that it deserves our care and protection.
Q. Do you have a favorite turtle species? If so, which?
This is probably the most difficult question of this conversation. I have several preferred species, one of them is the Mata Mata from South America, the second is probably the alligator snapping turtle. Both of them due to their unique aspects. To me, to see them is like traveling in time to ancient eras of earth. From my region, the Cuatro Ciénegas Softshell turtle is one of my favorites too. When you are watching it closely, you can easily notice all those adaptations that allowed this species to live in an environment like the valley of Cuatro Ciénegas. And of course, the Bolson tortoise. It is amazing just to see it living in the desert. Like a wise creature that has a self-confidence beyond any point, capable to support almost everything, strong, magnificent, like a tortoise with a proper feeling of proud, courage and trust to survive against everything.