This newly created, $20,000 award is the biggest for turtle conservation in the world and aims to recognize individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the conservation of tortoises and freshwater turtles. The Turtle Conservancy is dedicated to protecting the most endangered turtles and tortoises and their habitats worldwide, according to is website.
Páez, who is a Professor in the Instituto de Biología at the Universidad de Antioquia in Colombia, was chosen as the recipient of the first Sabin Turtle Conservation Prize for her research and work to conserve Columbia’s endemic turtle species over the past 30 years. She plans to use her award to help support students at the Universidad de Antioquia conduct vital research to conserve Columbia’s turtles and tortoises.
Páez earned a Ph.D. in Biological Sciences from the College of Arts & Sciences. “Professora Vivian Paez was my first doctoral student here at Ohio University, and this international award is a major recognition for her work in conservation biology,” says Dr. Scott Moody, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences, who attended the award ceremony in New York.
At OHIO, Páez did her doctoral dissertation on “The Conservation and Nesting Ecology of the Endangered Yellow-spotted Amazonian River Turtle, Podocnemis unifilis.” Her project was a three-year field study of the threatened yellow-spotted river turtle in the remote Cahuinarí National Park in the Colombian Amazon. She and her husband, Brian Bock, protected nests and published on nesting ecology, sex determination, female movements, and methods for successfully transferring nests at risk from flooding.
Páez and Bock also conducted one of the first studies on the population genetics of any Colombian species of fauna, the results of which indicated that management practices for her study species in the park could be improved. Their recommendations are slowly gaining acceptance, according to the award sponsors: the Turtle Conservancy, the Andrew Sabin Family Foundation, and Conservation International.
The couple moved to Medellín, Colombia, in 1996. Páez’ fieldwork at the Universidad de Antioquia has focused primarily on two over-exploited freshwater turtle species in the Magdalena River drainage, the Colombian Slider turtle (Trachemys callirostris) and the highly endangered and endemic Magdalena River turtle (Podocnemis lewyana). To date, she has published 58 scientific articles and book chapters.
She also is President of the Associación Colombiana de Herpetología and spearheaded the development of a Strategic Plan for the Conservation of Colombian Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. She took the lead in coordinating with more than 40 experts to produce the definitive work on biology and conservation of this diverse turtle fauna.
NBC Latino interviewed her for an article on “Latina Leaders: Dedicating her expertise to animal conservation.”
“These turtles only live in northern Colombia, and it worries me because they don’t have any protected area at all,” says Dr. Paez, who currently teaches at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin. “The land has been highly exploited by ranching and agriculture and hydroelectrics.”
In the last 10 years she’s been doing research in Colombia, Dr. Paez says she has finally learned what is needed to save them, and her $20,000 prize will help.
The accomplished scientist remembers when she was 21 and traveled abroad for the first time with a grant fellowship to study iguanas at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. This is also where she met her husband, an expert in iguana research.
“The places I had to visit to take data were also used for turtles to nest, and basically it was love at first sight,” says Dr. Paez about the first time she laid eyes on her favorite research subject. “I realized they had many conservation issues, so I decided to spend the rest of my life trying to conserve them.”
Dr. Páez is also featured in The Tortoise, with a story about Columbia, A Land of Turtles and Turtle Biologists.