Hicatee Awareness Month Outreach Programs

The start of this October marked the beginning of the 7th annual Hicatee Awareness Month campaign. Kicking off this initiative, Barney Hall and I embarked on a journey to the western part of Belize, focusing our efforts on regions notorious for the harvesting of Hicatee turtles for consumption. Our initial step involved seeking permission from these schools to conduct our classroom visits.

Our primary goal was to raise awareness through educational outreach, and we did so with the help of an interactive PowerPoint presentation. Throughout our visit, we emphasized key facets of Hicatee conservation. This included promoting the recognition of the Hicatee turtle and its status, highlighting the laws designed to safeguard this species, and showcasing the ongoing conservation efforts taking place in Belize. Most importantly, we aimed to leave a lasting impact on the students, with the hope of sparking a sense of motivation within them to become the next generation of dedicated conservationists.

Our educational journey spanned across several locations, encompassing schools in Belmopan City, Roaring Creek Village, Teakettle Village, Spanish Lookout Community, Valley of Peace Village, Blackman Eddy Village, Ontario Village, Georgeville Village, Santa Elena Town, and El Progresso Village. In the span of just five days, we had the privilege of visiting 14 schools and reaching a total of 581 students.

The response to our presentation was nothing short of heartwarming. Both students and teachers expressed their eagerness to learn more about this remarkable turtle and called for stronger enforcement of the laws established to protect and ensure the long-term survival of this critically endangered species. Here are some of the encouraging comments we received:

“The entire presentation was engaging and informative. I liked the interaction throughout the session.” – Valley of Peace Community School

“Enforce the laws that are set in place to protect the Hicatee turtles.” – St. Martin de Porres R.C School

“Excellent job! Come more often.” – Our Lady of Guadeloupe High School

Very good job! Keep up the good work.” – Eden S.D.A High School

As we journey onward in our outreach campaign, we are firmly committed to fostering a nationwide recognition of this unique turtle that is literally being eaten to extinction. To contribute meaningfully to the preservation of the Hicatee turtles, we recognize the importance of engaging community members of all ages, backgrounds, and professions in our conservation and research initiatives. This collaborative approach holds the key to advancing the conservation efforts for the Hicatee and securing its future in Belize and throughout its geographic range.

Finding Hope Amidst the Loss

A memory that is deeply lodged inside my brain – me, at the age of ten, navigating a trail behind my house winding through the lush broadleaf forests to the purpose of my being, the Belize River. A river that is deep and wide, created by two rivers colliding into one another. My heart pounds like a piston on a super truck climbing up a hill as I reach the cliff’s edge and peer over because I’m able to see schools of fish that are not scared off by my human presence. This was a time when I felt most connected to nature because the animals I witnessed didn’t seem traumatised by their contact with people. 

As a child, I was constantly fishing. I was also always observant – and when boats filled with fishermen were coming near – I quickly hid. I clearly remember one group of fishermen in a fancy John boat. They had an odd way of fishing by using ropes. Two men would shake the ropes as if they’ve hooked a giant fish and needed help from the others who would then jump in the water. When those who jumped in returned to the boat, all I would hear was a loud “bang” as if a rock fell into the hull. When I looked more closely, I could see a large turtle. I winced as the boat full of men celebrated in triumph.

I was a witness to the poaching that has led to the decline and critically endangered status of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) or Hicatee as we call it in Belize. It was very difficult for me to understand what was happening at that age. Now, I see things a bit more clearly.

Another memory that is crystal clear to me, is sitting on a cliff watching a dark brown, huge shell surfacing. I would hear a sharp sound as it released air for a couple of seconds and then torpedoed back down. The Hicatee is a unique species with a complicated physiology. I could never understand why I didn’t see them on land and always thought they were a mysterious animal. 

Animals in the wild don’t behave in the same way as they did when I was ten.  In the past I could watch fish closely as I’ve trained my eyes from a young age to spot an Iguana through dense trees or a toucan up on a high tree, but now as soon as a fish sees a glimpse of you it’s racing a bullet to hide.  Could it be because of these aghast methods of fishing? From a cliff, on a clear day, if I see a Hicatee, I must be very still when it comes up to breathe, because any sign of movement causes it to disappear. 

The trail that I once walked as a kid is no longer in existence. Now, I walk through an anthropogenic field of corn with no trees present until I reach the riverbank, which barely has twenty feet of riparian forest. What I see now are large pipes releasing effluents in the rivers, banks degrading, garbage accumulating, herons and cormorants caught in nets and fishing line, water colour not as vibrant green, and animals missing on the trails I once enjoyed. Observing all these losses breaks my heart. I wonder, when will there be sustainable efforts to restore these ecosystems and the animals that depend on them? 

Working with the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) has allowed me to develop a mindset aimed towards conserving Belize for future generations. My work at BFREE is focused on the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center which was created in conjunction with Turtle Survival Alliance as a response to catastrophic declines of Hicatee populations due to elevated levels of harvesting for human consumption. 

The facility strives to accumulate information on the species in captivity. We facilitate and promote research on the biology and ecology of Hicatee focusing on areas like breeding and nesting behaviours, temperature sex determination, dietary needs, growth rates, as well as pathogens and parasites. Through breeding efforts, we have been able to hatch and raise over 1,000 turtles and, to date, we have released over 500 of these captive-bred animals into the wild. We offer volunteer opportunities and training associated with our bi-annual Health assessments. We also host meetings and symposia to help further collective knowledge on the species.

On a national level BFREE has established the largest outreach campaign on the species – Hicatee Awareness Month. Through this campaign, we engage young minds, teachers, and the general public via events, media, and school programs to create awareness and enhance community involvement. 

We are also gearing up and planning for the launch of our field research team. Our initial research team members will consist of HCRC Manager – Thomas Pop, Dermatemys Program Coordinator – Jaren Serano and myself. There will also be opportunities for others to collaborate and assist in the field work once we get started. Together, we will gather the data needed to better understand the species and its current distribution in the wild. My team’s ultimate goal and hope is for the Hicatee to become sustainable once again in its native habitat. As for me, I won’t stop dreaming of the day when I return to the cliff of my youth and see my beautiful Belize as it once was and can be again – rich and lush in all its natural glory.    

Jaren Serano returns to BFREE as Dermatemys Program Coordinator

By Jaren Serano

During my first stint at BFREE, I had the privilege of witnessing the positive impact that organizations like this have on land conservation, wildlife protection, and the conservation efforts among the local communities in Belize. When I joined as BFREE’s first Science and Education Fellow in 2017, I was immediately drawn to their ongoing Dermatemys mawii (Hicatee) captive breeding program. At the time, this was still a relatively new collaboration between BFREE and the Turtle Survival Alliance, and we were experiencing our second year of hatching success.

My desire to contribute to the conservation efforts and help safeguard this species motivated me to be a part of this program. Through my active engagement and with guidance provided by Thomas Pop, the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center Manager, I acquired priceless firsthand experience working closely with the Hicatee turtles, both in controlled environments and their natural habitats. At the captive breeding facility, my daily responsibilities involved caring for and handling the turtles, which allowed me to develop skills in husbandry and effective management practices.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job was assisting in the care and rearing of hatchlings and juveniles. Being responsible for the well-being of over a hundred critically endangered Hicatee hatchlings instilled in me a profound sense of purpose and pride. Additionally, as a fellow, I had the privilege to gain insights from and work alongside various biologists, including Dr. Donald McKnight, Dr. Day Ligon and Denise Thompson. Together, we conducted population assessments for the Hicatee turtle within river systems in Belize. This not only enabled me to observe wild Hicatees for the first time but also provided a platform to engage with local anglers and raise awareness about the species’ conservation status.

After graduating from the fellowship program at BFREE, I traveled to the states to complete my bachelor’s degree in Sustainability at Jacksonville University (JU) under the advisement of Dr. John Enz. Being part of this program gave me a deeper understanding of the requirements needed to make a significant impact in today’s conservation field. Additionally, it offered me the opportunity to connect with a diverse group of like-minded individuals, some of whom have since become lifelong friends.

Following my accomplishments at JU, I then applied to and was accepted at the University of Florida (UF) for my master’s degree program. Throughout this period, I collaborated closely with Dr. Ray Carthy, Dr. Nichole Bishop, and Dr. Todd Osborne. My main focus was directed towards researching aspects of the reproductive ecology of loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). While at UF, I worked as a graduate research assistant at the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, which allowed me to further develop as a student of nature and has provided me with a solid scientific foundation. This dynamic environment has sharpened my analytical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and aptitude for effectively communicating scientific information and wildlife management programs to my peers in the sciences as well as the general public.

Now, as the Dermatemys Program Coordinator, I am incredibly enthusiastic about my new role. I am confident that my educational background, ever-expanding knowledge of the Hicatee turtle, and experience in wildlife conservation management will allow me to make immediate contributions to the ongoing efforts to prevent further decline of this critically endangered species.

Amidst a world challenged by increasing anthropogenic pressures, Belize is blessed to still possess approximately 55 percent of forest cover and a vibrant array of wildlife. As a proud Belizean, I derive immense satisfaction from actively participating in conservation initiatives within our country, striving to maintain the integrity of our diverse ecosystems. Over time, I have developed a profound respect for the ecological and cultural importance of D. mawii in Belize. This has fueled my determination to assist in implementing effective management practices that can strengthen this unique relationship and collaborate towards the restoration of declining and extirpated populations of D. mawii throughout its entire range.

My goal is to help promote governmental recognition of the Hicatee, with the hope that existing regulations can better align with the long-term sustainability of the species. Additionally, I aim to actively engage the community and foster a nationwide appreciation for D. mawii as a crucial member of Belize’s riparian ecosystems, rather than solely viewing it as a food resource. I firmly believe that by working together and actively collaborating, we can save the Hicatee from the brink of extinction.

With Thanks

Special Thanks to the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) for their continuous support of the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship Program. Also, thanks to TSA and the Disney Conservation Fund for their financial support to launch the position of Dermatemys Program Coordinator.

BFREE staff at Jaguar Lanes Bowling Alley in Maya Beach. This was for our 2018 Staff Retreat.

Billboards installed across Belize share a very important message, Save the Hicatee.

By Robynn Phillips, BFREE Engagement and Communications Coordinator

BFREE, our committed partnering organizations and this year’s Hicatee Awareness Month Planning Committee are excited to announce that two (2) billboards have been strategically installed along Belize’s Western Highway. 

The billboards were printed and installed by Big Signs Belize at the following locations:

  1. Mile 47, George Price Highway facing west.
  2. Mile 57, George Price Highway, Iguana Creek Roundabout facing north on the left side.

The billboard design was created by the 2022 Hicatee Awareness Month Planning Committee and it reads, “Save the Hicatee from Extinction: Follow Belize’s Fisheries Regulations.” The billboard will be on display for one year through October 2023. The goal of the billboards are to raise awareness through a larger platform, aiming to reach more people. We hope the billboards will bring awareness to Hicatee conservation not only during Hicatee Awareness Month but throughout the entire year. 

The billboards feature two dedicated conservation professionals, Mr. Thomas Pop and Mr. Barney Hall, each holding an adult Hicatee turtle. These gentlemen are responsible for the daily care of all turtles housed at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at the BFREE Field Station in Toledo. The Committee would like to point out that the turtles pictured are an adult male and female that live at the HCRC. Hicatee turtles don’t reach adulthood and become reproductive until they are approximately 16 years of age.  

The HCRC is a captive breeding facility for this critically endangered species of river turtle and is a collaboration between BFREE, Turtle Survival Alliance, and the Belize Fisheries Department that began in 2013. The purpose of the HCRC is to conduct research on the reproductive biology and nesting ecology of the species in captivity. This information learned at the HCRC helps guide conservation efforts in wild populations. The HCRC has produced over 1,000 eggs and 800 hatchlings, of which over 400 have been released into the wild.

Studies over the last decade have determined that there are a few healthy populations of Hicatee existing in Belize’s protected areas. However, populations in most unprotected water bodies are continuing to decline at alarming rates. The billboards serve as a reminder that for the Hicatee to continue to survive in Belize, it needs everyone’s support. Further, it recognizes a few of the individuals who are currently working to preserve the species for future generations. 

A special thank you to the US Fish and Wildlife Services for providing funding and to Big Signs Belize for working with the Committee on the design and then later printing and installing the billboards onsite. Both of these important contributions allowed the Billboards to be a reality and an ultimate dream come true!!

Re-wilding Hicatee into Belize’s rivers

BFREE, with the help of our dedicated partners, implemented three (3) separate Hicatee turtle release events for 2022. The first release event was conducted on the 1st of April 2022 when fifty-five (55) juveniles and hatchlings were released into a river in north central Belize. The release was done by BFREE’s Tom Pop and Jonathan Dubon with the support of community members.

The second release event was conducted on the 2nd of June 2022 when forty five (45) turtles were released into another river system also in north central Belize. The release was conducted by Belize Turtle Ecology Lab (BTEL) and students from Dr. Day Ligon’s Turtle Ecology Lab at Missouri State University, USA.

The third release event was conducted on the 17th of June 2022 and was the biggest release to date. A total of one hundred and twenty-four (124) juveniles were released into the wild in central Belize. BFREE staff, Dr. Ed Boles, Tom Pop, Jonathan Dubon and Barney Hall, were responsible for transporting and releasing all of the turtles. The location was chosen based on two factors. The first factor was that many of the adults that parented the juveniles were from this watershed, and previous data collected confirmed that this population has been heavily depleted. The second factor is related to research. This specific location allows for BFREE and its partner institutions to track and conduct long-term monitoring, and the habitat is healthy and provides the natural requirements needed for the population to rebound over time.

Jacob Marlin, BFREE’ Executive Director, states, “The reintroductions or rewilding of captive bred Hicatee from the HCRC at BFREE is a critical part of a much broader effort to prevent the extinction of this critically endangered species of turtle. By monitoring the survivorship and overall health of released turtles, and comparing the results to wild turtles of similar age and size, we can better understand the efficacy of and probability that our program can help re-establish and augment populations that have been severely depleted where they once were abundant.”

Over the last three years, with the support of our partners, BFREE has successfully released 415 captive born and raised Hicatee turtles in five different water bodies in central Belize. These turtles have been reintroduced into two watersheds where their populations have been severely depleted. Our reintroduction programs include both short and long-term monitoring, which will help us determine the success of this project. Several of the releases included the participation of community members to further expand our outreach efforts. 

As always, a special thanks to our partner, Turtle Survival Alliance, for their consistent and faithful support of Hicatee conservation in Belize.

Introducing BFREE’s Newest Fellow, Barney Hall

We are proud to introduce BFREE’s newest addition, Barney Hall. Barney has joined the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship Program as the third Wildlife Fellow since it was established in 2017. The Fellows Program is a two-year immersive training opportunity for recent Belizean junior college graduates who exhibit leadership potential combined with a clear interest in conserving the country’s natural resources. The Program is designed to improve leadership and professional skills and build lasting, sustainable partnerships between emerging Belizean leaders, BFREE, and its many conservation partners.

Barney Hall and Dr. Ed Boles releasing one of more than one hundred Hicatee turtles into the wild this summer.

By Barney Hall

Greetings! My name is Barney Hall, and I come from a village deep in the heart of the Cayo District called United Ville, known for the location of the Orange Gallery gift shop. I live alongside the Belize River system, which has gifted me the opportunity to see many types of animals over the years. Living here has built my curiosity to explore and learn more about how these species live together. It has also made me want to be a part of protecting and finding sustainable ways to help wildlife while also keeping the water systems healthy. I graduated from the University of Belize with an associate’s degree in Natural Resources Management. If you ask anyone that knows me, they’ll say when I’m not working, I’m out in a canoe or mini-Boat with my fishing rod. I can say I’ve caught most of the freshwater fish species of Belize. I previously worked as a sales representative for a metal company producing estimates for roofing. Still, deep down, I felt I had a call for the environment and wanted to be a part of a movement to help conserve our biodiversity.

In a lecture by Dr. Pio Saqui, Professor at The University of Belize, I recall he mentioned that, at the Bladen Nature Reserve bordering BFREE, you could see the Harpy eagle roaming in the wild. It instantly grasped my attention, so I looked up the location and found a page about BFREE and had hoped to visit in the future. Then one day at my previous job, Mr. Jacob Marlin walked in, and we started talking. I remembered him from the research I had done on the BFREE website. Jacob shared that there was an opportunity to apply for the Wildlife Fellowship Program. He explained more about their work with the Hicatee, and I was so excited. I instantly applied for the position, hoping to get an opportunity to learn and become a part of this movement and start a career as a conservationist. Soon after, I was invited to start a trial week at BFREE. When I arrived, I was guided to the pond and started working, cutting fig leaves and running metal around the pond so other species of turtles would not enter. Jonathan and Tom explained the road they have been on over the last several years working with the Hicatee and all their epic moments. I was even more excited and ready to join their growing movement of making a difference in Belize.

After my week-long trial, I was officially offered the two-year Fellowship Program. I knew that accepting this position is a start to building a career. I love freshwater systems because of where I grew up, and I have seen the population of the Hicatee decrease over the years due to human overharvesting for meat gain. I’ve seen poachers go with canoes and chains, shaking the chain as a technique to confuse the turtle in the eddies and deeper parts of the rivers, making them surface and grabbing them quickly, taking large amounts at a time. The Hicatee is the last remaining species in the family Dermatemydidae, and if no action is taken, we could lose this species forever.

I’m most excited about BFREE’s educational campaigns, raising community awareness, issuing brochures, flyers, stickers, videos, and much more as part of their outreach programs to help change human behavior towards the Hicatee. I’m also excited about the fieldwork that I will participate in over the next two years. I know that I will also learn a lot from the bi-annual health checks, egg hunting, the process of incubating eggs until they hatch, all the weighing and measuring, and the surveys to be done.

I’ve already had a very busy first month as a Fellow. I was very fortunate to participate in the biggest Hicatee turtle release in Belize to date. It took us one week to prepare for that release. First, we removed turtles from the rearing pond at the HCRC. The process began by putting them in tubs and then measuring and weighing each turtle; this data is important to compare when searching for those released turtles in the wild. Tom, Jonathan, and I got up at 5 AM to prepare by packing the turtles and canoeing them across the Bladen River because the water level had risen, and we could not walk across the river. We headed to a river settlement where we met up with Dr. Ed Boles, who joined us in releasing the turtles. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet a leader in freshwater conservation within my first month of the program. Dr. Ed pours his heart out into investigating issues and trying to develop solutions to help freshwater systems all over Belize. He has done many visits to local communities to try and establish community-driven forces in monitoring species. We released over 120 turtles in the Sibun River system. Watching them swim off after a long process of raising them makes you a little emotional because you want the best for them and want them to survive and grow, but there in the wild is where they belong and have a better chance of growing faster.

I would have never expected to do so much in so little time, but all I can say is that the journey has begun, and it’s been a great blessing making a difference for the Hicatee turtle. I’ve developed a newfound love for the Hicatee turtle and look forward to learning more about them through this fellowship program.

Tom Pop and Barney measure a Hicatee prior to releasing it in the wild.

Genetic Analysis of Dermatemys mawii

BFREE’s second Hicatee (Central American River Turtle) Health Assessment of 2022 took place on July 5 and 6. These dates were much earlier than normal because there was an opportunity to conduct a much-needed genetics study. Dr. Natalia Gallego Garcia traveled from Colombia to collect the samples that will be used for genetic analysis. With the help of Luke Pearson and Isabelle Paquet-Durand, she was able to collect 44 samples from the 46 adult captive turtles in residence at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). Collected samples will be stored at BFREE until export permits are received. The study is critical to the on-going work at the HCRC and for the Hicatee program in Belize.

Improving Captive Management

Using this genetics study, Natalia will implement a paternity analysis. Data collected will be used to assign all the clutches hatched at the HCRC to a mother (dame) and to potential fathers (sires). We will also gain an understanding of the reproductive output of the species by determining which captive adults are reproducing and how often. Results will be used to improve captive management protocols.

Supplementing Wild Populations

Further, the study will help us determine the genetic composition of wild populations and understand how to supplement those populations with captive animals if necessary. Dr. Gallego-Garcia will conduct a population genetics analysis that includes wild samples in Belize as well as Mexico and Guatemala.

In addition to the genetics study, morphometric data was collected on all adults as well as the majority of juveniles. Dr. Isabelle and her assistant performed ultrasounds on all adult females and identified follicles already forming in many of the turtles.

Finally, because a survey team from Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG) was onsite, Natalia was able to collect samples from a subset of those turtles as well.

Hicatee Health Assessment participants

UCLA Shaffer Lab – Natalia Gallego-Garcia; TSA- NAFTRG turtle survey team members – Eric Munscher, Collin McAvinchey, Becca Cozad, Tabitha Hootman, Arron Tuggle, Georgia Knaus, Maddie Morrison, Nichole Salvatico, Luke Pearson, and Stephen Ross; TSA and BFREE Board Member – Tim Gregory; Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic – Isabelle Paquet Durand; BFREE – Tom Pop, Jonathan Dubon, Barney Hall, Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett

Natalia Gallego García received her Ph.D in 2019 at Universidad de los Andes. For her dissertation, she used landscape genomics to determine mechanisms affecting the functional connectivity in two endangered and endemic turtles in Colombia. She conducts work through UCLA’s Shaffer Lab as a postdoc, working on a range wide landscape genomic analysis of the red-footed tortoise across South America, with a particular emphasis on Colombian population differentiation.

Introducing the Dermatemys Program Coordinator

By Jacob Marlin

After 12 years of raising awareness and developing a strong Hicatee conservation program, BFREE in partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), is pleased to announce the creation of the new position of Dermatemys Program Coordinator within the BFREE organization. We have contracted Dr. Ed Boles, a naturalized Belizean who brings more than three decades of experience and leadership from a freshwater ecological perspective, along with strong relationships with government, NGO’s, and local community members. Dr. Boles will help foster the necessary collaborations needed to create a holistic regional program to ensure the Hicatee has the best chance of survival into the future.

Dr. Boles began his new role on February 1st, 2022. The two of us are already working closely together along with other BFREE and TSA staff and local community members to become fully acquainted with the many activities, accomplishments, challenges and stakeholders involved in the conservation and sustainable use of the species. In the coming months, we will be advertising for an “Assistant Dermatemys Program Coordinator” position to be filled on July 1st, with the intention that the assistant position will slide into the coordinator role after Dr. Boles completes his one-year contract. 

We have ambitious goals for 2022, and we are excited to keep you posted on our efforts to advance the conservation of this unique and culturally important species.

Feste Film Crew Visits the HCRC

In collaboration with the European Nature Trust, The Feste Film crew has been traveling throughout Belize, documenting the country’s many important conservation initiatives since January.


This week, the crew stopped at BFREE to learn about our work to preserve the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, locally known as the Hicatee. They are interviewing BFREE staff at our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) and learning about our captive breeding program and rewilding goals for this critically endangered species.

The Feste Film crew beats the heat with BFREE bandanas!

A New Species of Coccidia Described in D. mawii

We are pleased to announce a recent publication in the Journal of Parasitology that describes a new coccidian protozoan, Eimeria grayi. Named after the biologist who described Dermatemys mawii, this is the first description of a coccidian in the Central American River Turtle. The discovery of this bacteria advances our understanding of this under-studied and monotypic species of turtle. This coccidian was identified in captive turtles at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at the BFREE Field Station in southern Belize. We do not know if this coccidian exists in wild turtles. 

The publication was a team effort and we are especially grateful to Dr. Elliott Jacobson who took the lead on this important effort.