Hicatee Conservation Initiative
The Central American River Turtle, or “Hicatee”, is a critically endangered species of aquatic turtle that used to range through most of the rivers and lagoons in the Yucatan peninsula area of Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. It has been almost completely extirpated from its former range in Mexico and Guatemala due to commercial overharvesting. The species last stronghold is some of the remote lagoons and rivers of Belize. Little is known about this turtle’s behavior, nesting habits or population status in these remote areas of Belize. In order to properly protect this turtle from extinction, we need to find out what this species needs to survive, help make informed management decisions to preserve it and form captive assurance colonies to ensure its survival if the wild populations are not able to be saved.
If we can gain protection for the last few populations, begin learning how to breed them in captivity, learn what they require in the wild to survive, and curtail commercial harvesting, we can hopefully reverse their sharp population decline. These turtles have been celebrated as a part of the culture in these regions since the times of the Mayan. It is also a unique species and the only member of its genus to still exist. We cannot even fully appreciate or know the role this turtle may play in the environment and what we may be potentially losing until we can study this elusive and endangered species.
Zoo Miami staff has begun surveys in the rivers and lagoons of Northern Belize to look for these critically endangered turtles. Despite flooded conditions, dark pigmented waters, plentiful crocodiles and large expanses of habitat, Zoo Miami staff and our partners were able to affix radiotransmitters to several turtles of various ages and sexes to begin to learn more about this species and its behaviors. Further surveys, developing better trapping techniques, and continued monitoring of the turtles already with transmitters attached will still be needed in the near future. When we gain a better understanding of this species, this knowledge can be passed on to policymakers in Belize to help shape land and natural resource management to ensure the survival of this iconic animal. A man-made pond near the study area is being assessed as a possible site to create an assurance colony that may serve as test site to learn how to maintain a population in captivity.
Download the Hicatee Activity Book by clicking here.
Update March, 2014:
Click on any image below to see a slideshow of the field work
At the end of March, Zoo Miami, the Lamanai Field Research Center, and the University of Florida were working together to save the Hicatee turtle (Dermatemys mawii) in northern Belize through surveys, tracking, and an educational program.
The surveys and tracking have provided valuable information regarding the population size, demographics, and habitat use of this unique turtle, found only in Belize, Mexico, and Guatemala. Throughout its range, this species is protected, but is still declining due to human consumption.
Because human consumption is the largest cause for the decline of the Hicatee, an education/outreach approach is extremely important. A Hicatee Activity Guide was created for distribution to educate school children in Belize about the turtle and its plight. So far, more than 3000 have been distributed through the efforts of many partners, including the Belize Fisheries Department. In addition, more than 2000 Hicatee stickers and temporary tattoos were created and have helped to spark an interest in children.
All of the educational materials were purchased through support from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund and The Turtle Conservation Fund. These funding groups, along with Zoo Miami, Lamanai Field Research Center, University of Florida, and Jacksonville Zoo have all supported the research being conducted by the Lamanai Hicatee Conservation Initiative.