The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) is one of two ex-situ facilities in the world maintaining Dermatemys mawii (the Central American River Turtle, locally known as Hicatee) in captivity for the purpose of studying aspects of its biology and behavior. The HCRC is a collaborative project of the Turtle Survival Alliance and the BFREE Field Station.
The HCRC facility includes two ponds which are approximately 100’ long and 80’ wide and 9-12’ deep in the center. A well and solar powered pumping system supplies fresh water to the ponds. The areas around the ponds are planted with Paspalum paniculatum, a weed like grass that is the primary diet of the Hicatee, as well as dozens of fig and bri-bri trees – also preferred food plants for the Hicatee. Because of the facilities’ unique location in the middle of the rainforest where wildlife predators roam, a 10′ electrified chain-link fence was constructed for the protection of breeding population and turtles born into the project and therefore surrounds the perimeter of the two ponds.
A 10’ x 10’ floating island covered in vegetation was constructed for each pond. The floating islands provide cover, help clean and oxygenate the water, and create a thermal gradient to provide a variety of temperatures for the turtles to choose from.
Juvenile turtles are housed in a custom-built galvanized aluminum enclosure with a hinged and screened locking lid located near the edge of Pond A. The enclosure is designed as a flow through tank with a solar powered pump to fill the tank with fresh water during daylight hours and an overflow standpipe drain to ensure constant movement of fresh water.
A processing facility construction was finished in 2015 outside of the fenced breeding pond enclosure at the HCRC. The facility consists of a 16’x12’ raised wooden platform with a zinc roof with sky lights for better lighting and a custom built table for housing turtles during health assessments.
Captive-breeding efforts offer the potential to produce offspring for release and repatriation into areas that have experienced widespread declines or extirpation. Additionally, specimens maintained in captivity provide valuable opportunities for studying aspects of the species’ reproductive biology, diet and behavior that would otherwise be difficult to observe or study in the field. This information in turn, can help further inform and influence conservation strategies and actions. Research and activities at the HCRC combined with partner efforts will contribute to a comprehensive conservation and recovery effort for D. mawii in Belize.
Education at the HCRC
BFREE hosts high school and college student groups from Belize, the US and Canada. Beginning in 2015, HCRC staff began offering one hour tours of the facility combined with educational talks describing the current status of the Hicatee turtle in Belize and throughout its limited range. Researchers and other visitors to BFREE are also offered these tours upon request. During 2017, visitors to the HCRC have been invited to participate in the national #SaveTheHicatee awareness campaign by signing a petition banner thereby pledging their commitment to the conservation of the species.