Saving the critically endangered hicatee: One turtle at a time


Lamanai Field Research Center, University of Florida, and Zoo Miami, took a bite out of extinction by teaming up to help save the critically endangered hicatee turtle (Dermatemys mawii) in Belize. These three founding partners were assisted by the Jacksonville Zoo and now undertake the Lamanai Hicatee Conservation Initiative (LHCI) that targets long-term hicatee monitoring, and community educational outreach. The hicatee has been extirpated from much of its historical range of southern Mexico, northern Guatemala, and Belize. Although the hicatee is protected throughout its current range, the rates of harvesting for human consumption is unsustainable and population numbers continue to decline. Belize is purported to be the last remaining stronghold for the species but surveys of previously healthy populations have shown them to have largely disappeared. They can now be found in far fewer numbers and in more rural, relatively inaccessible areas.

The LHCI’s monitoring and tracking efforts are providing valuable information on the existing population size, demographics, and habitat use of this unique turtle and will continue to track individuals as the seasons change. Of equal importance is the education of the communities on the status and plight of this river turtle, particularly because the hicatee is a cultural delicacy. The LHCI has focused its energy on promoting nationwide awareness and has designed A Guide to the Freshwater Turtles of Belize that is in use by other research partners, NGOs, and local schools and villages. More than 3000 temporary tattoos of hicatees and stickers with the slogan “The hicatee is disappearing but TOGETHER we can save it!” have sparked excitement and curiosity in school children and continue to be distributed by many of the LHCI’s partners, including the Belize Fisheries Department.

On the most recent trip to Belize in March, Dustin Smith of Zoo Miami and Dr. Venetia Briggs-Gonzalez of Lamanai Field Research Center/University of Florida attended the 9th annual Natural Resource Management symposium in Belmopan, Belize where Dustin presented the scope of the collaborative research and educational program underway between the partners and the positive effect of educational outreach. Dustin’s seminar was very well-received and sparked further discussion about the Critically Endangered hicatee.

On this March trip, members of our team, Dustin Smith and Dr. Venetia Briggs-Gonzalez joined forces with Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) and the Belize Foundation for Education and Environmental Education (BFREE) to spend several days on the river surveying small hicatee populations in central Belize. The team measured, weighed, and marked fourteen turtles by the end of the trip spent on the tidal river. At the end of the first day, the local news reported the successful confiscations of eight illegally harvested hicatee from the Sandhill area. The Fisheries officers, acting on a lead, travelled by canoe and came across ten nets illegally set across the creek to trap hicatees. Two men were arrested and charged for exceeding the permitted amount of three turtles in their possession, for the use of nets to trap turtles, and for harvesting turtles outside of the size limits. Our team made contact with the Fisheries Department and the confiscated turtles were transferred to the newly constructed breeding facility at BFREE where in-situ research will focus on the reproductive biology of the hicatee.

Dustin and Venetia then headed to the field study site near Lamanai where they tracked five wild hicatees in the New River previously affixed with transmitters. The turtles are on the move as water recedes and the dry-downs begin. The LHCI’s partners will continue to radio-track these individuals and will outfit more turtles with transmitters to aid in our research efforts to understand movement patterns and seasonal responses in habitat preference. Look for regular updates on the LFRC Facebook page and help us fight extinction as we help to conserve the Hicatee!

Check out the photos below which were graciously provided by Rich Zerilli, Jacob Marlin, Thomas Rainwater and Dustin Smith.

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