Rosalinda Palomo-Ramos and Gamaliel Castañeda Gaytán 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. Rosalinda has spent years deciphering the decline of the Bolsón tortoises, and understanding their relationship with ranchers in Mapimi Biosphere Reserve. She is completing her doctoral thesis on the conservation biology of the Bolson Tortoise. We had a chance to catch up with Palomo-Ramos about what drives her passion and what this award means to her:
Q. How did you develop your passion for wildlife?
I developed my passion for wildlife since I was very young. I am the youngest of six siblings and coming from a large family with not too much income, going to the park and for hikes in the nearby state parks made sense economically. So almost every weekend, my parents would take us out for picnics and hikes, which I enjoyed tremendously! I would get to see the flowering cacti, the lizards, the box turtles and the snakes and I felt so free walking around in big open spaces, bombarding my parents with questions about all the animals I saw. My family loves to be around nature and learn as much as possible, so we would watch National Geographic shows and read the magazines. I enjoyed watching those shows with my father and brothers. Naturally, those experiences developed my interest in wildlife and I decided to study Biology in College.
Q. What is your favorite part of working in the field?
My favorite part is being out in the big, open spaces of the desert. It makes you feel so small, it’s a humbling experience, because it helps you to put things in perspective. We shouldn’t take ourselves so seriously.
Q. What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I find working with endangered species very rewarding. Trying to find solutions to some of the problems that threaten the Bolson tortoise makes me feel that I am doing my part to help save this species.
Q. Do you experience any challenges as a woman in conservation?
There are some challenges that I and many female colleagues in conservation face, for example, there is disparity when it comes to women in authority positions and women leading research projects. I know if we expose girls to female role models in conservation, there will be more women participating in this area. Jane Goodall was a very important influence for me. I remember watching her on TV in those National Geographic specials surrounded by the chimpanzees she so dedicatedly studied for so many years. I wanted to study animals just like her. Later in life, I met a professor in College, Dr. Ana Gatica, who always supported me to do field research.
There is also a lack of obtaining funds to conduct research. Even though Mexico is one of the most megadiverse countries in the world, the government invests less than 1% of its GDP in the sciences. We need more women in conservation and more programs that help to develop research that will enrich our communities and protect wildlife. There are also security issues that I and many women conducting field research face. We take risks anytime we are alone that men don’t. But I have learned to know my boundaries and other people’s boundaries that help me make decisions about if it’s worth to take the risk or not. Safety for you and your field crew comes first. And yes, the comments that say “women can’t do field work” are always present, but I always ignore those comments and pursue my passion.
Q. Do you have any words of wisdom you’d like to share with girls that are interested in the field?
Sometimes you might hear that field work is not for suitable for girls because we are fragile and weak, and that it is more appropriate for men. I think those comments are ridiculous and there are many women all over the world to serve as proof that we can do a great job at it. I suggest developing a strong shell, like a tortoise, so that those ridiculous words slip by and don’t discourage you, because in the end, that’s all they are, just ignorant comments.
Q. What does this award mean to you?
Receiving this award is very humbling and exciting. This award means to me that doing what I love and care about works and encourages me to work even harder.
Q. What do you love about turtles in particular?
They are interesting creatures, they haven’t changed their structural trait much in 200,000 million years because it has served them well. They watched dinosaurs come and go. I also marvel at the beautiful shell diversity of turtles, they come in so many shapes and colors, can you imagine having a painted skeleton?
Q. Are you hopeful for the future of our planets turtles and tortoises?
Yes, I am very hopeful for the future of chelonians in the world. There are some success stories about recovering populations, like the recovery of a nearly extinct Galapagos tortoise from Espanola Island. There were only 12 females and three males left, but thanks to a 40-year captive breeding program, the population has reached more than 1700 individuals and now have been repatriated to the island. Extinctions are almost always preventable at small human cost. Fortunately, there are many people all over the world fighting to save chelonians, and hopefully more people will sign up to contribute. We can all do our part to protect endangered turtles and tortoises. I am very hopeful about the Bolson tortoise as well. More people are becoming aware of the perils that the Bolson tortoise face and my colleagues and I will give it all to save this species from extinction.
Q. Why should everyone care about saving wildlife?
Because wildlife is essential to maintain a functioning and healthy ecosystem. Each animal plays an important role, for example, tortoises are seed dispersers and in the case of the Bolson tortoise, the burrows they create help with soil aeration. If we remove one piece of the puzzle, that can lead to disastrous results.
Wildlife has contributed so much to our wellbeing, for instance, medicines have been derived from chemicals produced by animals. The venom of a Brazilian pit viper is used to treat high blood pressure, tarantula venoms are used to treat neurological disorders. If an animal goes extinct, so will our opportunity to study and learn from them.
Q. Do you have a favorite turtle species? If so, which?
The Bolson tortoises, of course! I began to work with this species in 2008. I studied the dietary habits of a captive population Of Bolson tortoises by direct observations and by scat analysis. These tortoises were in a semi wild enclosure and I would climb a tall observation deck to look for foraging tortoises. I spent two whole summers with them, so I got to see many interesting tortoise behaviors. The more I saw, the more fascinated by them I got. I still am.