The Journey of Nutrition at the HCRC

By Barney Hall, Wildlife Fellow

Dermatemys mawii (Hicatee) hatchlings at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center  (HCRC) are frequently caught during a tour in order to give visitors a hands-on experience and a unique opportunity to hold such a rare turtle. With that being said, each time Tom catches a turtle he quickly analyzes the health of the hatchlings and is pleased when he confirms that the shells are very hard compared to the past hatchlings. You might be curious to know what has changed.

Background

Prior to our work at the HCRC, the hicatee has never been successfully held captive for breeding for any length of time. Past research using dissection of the turtle’s intestinal tract has shown different types of plant vegetation but no indication of carnivorous activity and helps us better understand what they feed on. Because of this, a cycle is done at the facility where Tom and Barney collect fig leaves, cecropia leaves, paspalum grass and occasionally basket tie-tie  to try and meet the turtle’s nutritional requirements. However, in the wild there are way more varieties and minerals the turtle could feed on to help them gain calcium carbonate to strengthen their shells. For this very reason research was needed to locate a source to find that missing nutritional component. 

Some visitors to the HCRC during a Hicatee Health Assessment recommended we supplement the turtle’s diet with a prepared and specific pre-made turtle food. So, we asked some visitors to bring some Mazuri diet down when they came and we tried it with our hatchlings. When we saw some positive changes, we asked Rick Hudson for help getting more bags to Belize. He jumped in and asked Mark Dennison of Mazuri Turtle Diet for a donation of food to the Belize program. Mazuri turtle diet is a nutritionally complete turtle food for all freshwater species and stages of life. Since it’s a complete diet, all necessary components of a reptile’s nutritional needs are accounted for in its formulation. In fact, all Mazuri diets are formulated by in-house Ph.D Exotic Animal Nutritionists and manufactured to exacting standards to ensure the best quality and complete, constant nutrition for captive held reptiles (Mazuri nutrition 2021). 

The food is not available in Belize and we don’t currently have the conditions for long-term storage of large amounts of turtle food (although, thanks to our partner, Zoo New England, we have plans in the works to remedy that). In the meantime, we deal with an elaborate process of ordering bags, getting them imported into Belize and then transported to BFREE.  

A New Supply for 2023

This January, Wildlife Fellow Barney Hall and HCRC Manager Tom Pop were able to get in contact with Mr. Mark Dennison again. This was due to Tom’s encounter with Mr. Mark at the 20th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtlesn Tucson, Arizona. 

Tom describes his encounter as follows, “We met briefly at the turtle conference last year in Tucson, Arizona. Mark told me he had shipped Mazuri food pellets to Mr. Rick Hudson which were then shipped to Belize. I explained how the pellets arrived to us in Belize and how beneficial they have been to the young hatchlings’ health at the facility. We noticed that our hatchlings were not forming hard shells, meaning that their diet requirements were not being met, until we introduced the Mazuri pellets”.  Mr. Mark was very delighted by our efforts and great remarks about the food quality he provides, so immediately offered to donate six more bags of pellets to the HCRC!

We have noticed clear improvements in our turtles’ health at the HCRC, especially our young hatchlings, since beginning to provide Mazuri pellets. We supplement their regular feedings with Mazuri diet and take observations each month to check the progress on shell development. Over time, results have shown that all hatchlings now have very hard shells and seem to have overcome the lack of calcium that was previously impacting their health. The turtles love the pellets and devour the food so very fast that we average one sack of pellets per month. Another great benefit of the pellets is that they float which creates a natural feeding behavior to the young turtles when introduced days after they have hatched.  In total, we have successfully released 416 captive-bred healthy turtles back into the wild to areas where they were once abundant to try and augment populations.

A Special Thanks

We very much look forward to receiving the turtle diet in the coming weeks. On behalf of BFREE and the HCRC, we would like to thank Mr. Mark and the team of Mazuri.  We hope to build this connection stronger for future collaborations to keep providing the best care and nutrition to the critically-endangered Hicatee turtle. 

The Bladen Review 2022

The 8th edition of BFREE’s annual magazine is now available in an interactive format online at Issuu! Get the latest news from the field station and learn about exciting research, conservation and education projects taking place in and around the rainforests of Belize. 

Highlights of the 2022 magazine include: updates on the conservation and outreach programs associated with cacao agroforestry, the Hicatee turtle, and Science & Education Fellowship Program.

Click here to download a PDF of The Bladen Review 2022.

Special thanks to Alyssa D’Adamo for designing this year’s magazine and to Shaman Marlin for photographing the cover image.

BFREE TURTLE SURVEY

LONG TERM TURTLE SURVEY IN THE JUNGLE

Join the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE) and the Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG) to participate in a long-term population monitoring project for freshwater and terrestrial turtle species located within BFREE’s Privately Protected Area in southern Belize. The BFREE Privately Protected Area is a 1,153-acre reserve that adjoins the largest tract of rainforest north of the Amazon. It’s an incredible hotspot for biodiversity where tapirs, howler monkeys, jaguars, and harpy eagles are often spotted and is the last stronghold for many endangered species.

Participants will be supporting researchers in the second annual survey of a 10-year long-term monitoring project to provide basic demographic and population information. Turtles will be captured using various methods, including hand capture and baited traps, and will be given unique identification marks and injected with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags for future identification. You’ll be joined by herpetologists and experts in the field from both the US and Belize. In 2021, the BFREE and TSA-NAFTRG Team marked, measured, and safely released 272 turtles. Turtles found included White-lipped Mud Turtle, Tabasco Mud Turtle, Scorpion Mud Turtle, Mexican Giant Musk Turtle, Central American Snapping Turtle, Furrowed Wood Turtle, and the Meso-American Slider – representing seven of Belize’s nine freshwater turtles.

We look forward to you joining us in Belize for the June/July 2023 BFREE and TSA-NAFTRG Turtle Survey in the jungle!


DATES

June 30 – July 10, 2023 – OPEN

Spaces are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Deposits will be accepted beginning January 30, 2023. Participants are required to book their own transportation to BFREE, including international airfare to the Philip Goldson International Airport (BZE) and domestic airfare to Savannah (INB).

REQUIREMENTS

  • Able to hike between 5 and 10 miles a day in 90-degree weather with 100% humidity.
  • Able to lift and carry 40 lbs. for periods of time.
  • Willingness to get dirty and to put long days in.
  • All participants are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

CONTACT

Questions, please contact Eric Munscher, Director of the Turtle Survival Alliance’s – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG) at

emunscher@turtlesurvival.org

ITINERARY

  • Day One: Arrive at BZE by 1:30 PM, fly to INB at 3:30 PM (exact flight time to be updated in 2023). Transportation provided from INB to the BFREE Field Station. Settle into rooms and unpack before dinner.
  • Day Two: Tour the BFREE Facility and familiarize yourself with the various trails and facilities. Free time to relax and swim in the crystal-clear water of the Bladen River or explore one of BFREE’s many conservation initiatives, including the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a captive breeding facility for the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, locally known in Belize as the Hicatee.
  • Day Three – Ten: Turtle surveys throughout BFREE’s 1,153-acre private reserve. Turtle surveys will primarily take place on the ground. There will be one or two days of river surveys but most data is collected on land.
  • Day Eleven: Breakfast followed by transportation to INB for a domestic flight back to BZE.

COSTS

The costs are $1,600 per participant.

Cost Includes:

  • Double occupancy in BFREE’s newest accommodation, the Hammock, which features an open-air veranda connecting six private rooms. Linens, pillows, and blankets provided.
  • Three chef-prepared meals per day.
  • Guided night hikes and tours of BFREE’s conservation programs
  • Round-trip 4×4 transportation from Savannah Airport (INB) to the BFREE Field Station and back on the day of departure.
  • Fees paid to this program not only support your participation in critical turtle research for Belize but also have a direct impact on the country’s next generation of conservation leaders. Funding from this TSA-NAFTRG-BFREE research program helps to support Belizean participation in scientific research at BFREE.

REGISTER

Space is limited for this incredible opportunity; make your deposit today to secure your spot. Deposits are due by April 3, 2023. The final payment is due by May 1st, 2023. To register for this program, read the Booking Terms and Conditions on the next page.



BOOKING TERMS AND CONDITIONS

Participants must agree to all terms and conditions of booking before registering for this program. This program is coordinated by the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE).

Covered Costs.

Participation in the 2023 Turtle Survey at BFREE is $1,600 per person. These covered costs per person include accommodations, meals, and guided tours of BFREE. Program Fees Do Not include the following: international airfare to BZE, roundtrip domestic airfare with Maya Island Air to Savannah (INB), soft drinks and beers, COVID-19 Tests or travel insurance, gratuities/souvenirs – at your discretion.

Deposit and Final Payment.

A $500 USD Non-Refundable initial deposit will secure your spot on the trip, or you may choose to pay in full. The remaining balance is due 60-days before the retreat start date. Failure to make payment by the applicable due date may forfeit your booking on the trip and be treated as a cancellation. If a booking is made less than 60-days before the trip start date, the full amount must be paid at the time of booking.

Payment Schedule.

The $500 deposit is due for all participants by April 3, 2023. Final payment for Participants is due by May 1, 2023. Payments should be made at www.givebutter.com/turtletour

Cancellations.

Cancellations made by participants should include a formal refund request sent by email to reservations@bfreebz.org. According to the outline below, approved refunds by BFREE will be returned to the participant.

  • Refund requests more than 60-days before the program start date will receive a full refund minus the $500 deposit.
  • Refund requests more than 30-days before the program start date will receive a 50% refund minus the $500 deposit.
  • Refund requests less than 30-days before the program start date are non-refundable.
  • Cancellations 30-days or less to the program start date due to events directly relating to COVID-19, specifically international travel restrictions and border closings, will receive a 50% refund minus the deposit.

BFREE is not liable for additional costs incurred due to cancellation, including flights, lodgings, activities, meals, etc. BFREE strongly recommends that all participants purchase travel insurance (medical, COVID-19 coverage, and trip cancellation) to protect you in case of any unforeseen emergencies. BFREE shall, in its sole discretion, have the right, upon written notice to the participant and without further liability, to terminate a program. Participants will be refunded following the Cancellation policy outlined above. BFREE is not liable for any loss or damage suffered by you, including but not limited to the loss of the Deposit and/or Full Payment, as a result of a Force Majeure Event and/or the cancellation of a Program due to a Force Majeure Event.

Travel to BFREE.

International flights should arrive at the Philip Goldson International Airport (BZE) no later than 1:30 PM on the first day of the program. On the program’s final day, international departure flights should not depart BZE before noon.

COVID-19 Policy.

All guests must adhere to the Government of Belize’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols at the time of their visit to Belize, as well as those from the departure destination. BFREE is not liable to cover or absorb losses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Cancellations 30-days or prior to the departure date due to events directly relating to COVID-19, specifically international and university travel restrictions and border closings, will be refunded 50% of the program’s total cost minus the deposit.  All visitors to BFREE are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Info Session.

Turtle Survival Alliance and Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education will host an informational virtual meeting in 2023 for all
confirmed Participants prior to survey. Meeting Date: TBA

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.

Meet Robynn Phillips

BFREE’s New Engagement and Communications Coordinator

Hi! My name is Robynn Phillips. I’ve recently joined BFREE on a contract basis as the Engagement and Communications Coordinator. My role is primarily to manage activities associated with BFREE’s annual awareness campaign for Hicatee Awareness Month.

I am from one of the coastal communities in Southern Belize about 20 miles from BFREE called Independence Village. I am an aspiring conservationist. For me, it all started while taking boat rides and eating fresh sea food. I remember being a young girl eating fry jacks on the beach in Placencia Village, which was only a fifteen-minute water taxi ride away. The local tourism industry was higher over in Placencia which meant more job opportunities and most people would travel over for work daily: my mom was one of them. My two siblings and I would head over on holidays to spend the day on the beach as we waited for our mom to clock off.

My passion and caring for the natural environment stemmed from what I saw then: the crystal, clear water, blue sky, and the breathtaking beach. As I got older and furthered my education, I truly understood that such beauty needed protection – and it would take a lot of work and knowledge to protect it. Since then, I have contributed to keeping that same area pristine through beach clean ups. During my education, I got to see where the very fresh seafood my mom cooked came from and encouraged fisher folks to fish sustainably through education and outreach activities.

My associate’s degree is from Independence Junior College (IJC) and my bachelor’s degree is from the University of Belize (UB), both in Natural Resource Management. Through my educational journey, I had the chance to travel my beautiful country to explore its diverse flora and fauna. Experiencing such beauty made me grow tremendous appreciation for the natural environment in all its forms; terrestrial, marine and aquatic.

After completing my studies, I entered the work world in the field that I studied for and a scenery that was very much familiar. As I ventured off to start my career focusing on marine resource protection, I had the chance to oversee the day-to-day operations of two important marine protected areas in Southern Belize, off the coast of Placencia Village; Laughing Bird Caye National Park (LBCNP) and Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve (GSSCMR).

For over five years, I have been working and volunteering within the conservation sector, focusing on the marine environment. So far, it’s been extremely rewarding as I have learned a lot, seen some of Belize’s natural treasures and worked with many inspirational people. I am grateful for the all the dedicated and hardworking people who paved the way and made it possible for those who came after them. I aspire to be just as or even more influential with hopes to continue to protect and bring awareness to our unique natural resources.

I first visited BFREE back in 2015 and 2016 as a student for two separate courses during my time at IJC. During both trips, I was able to learn about small mammal traps that were used for research, ongoing bird research, the cocoa planation and the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC).  At the HCRC, my classmates and I had the chance to see the Hicatees, learn about the bi-annual health assessments and about how these data collected are used for decision-making and to strengthened overall management of the facility and the species.

Now, I am excited for the opportunity to be a part of the movement to protect and re-wild the critically endangered Hicatee Turtles. I look forward to learning and effectively contributing to BFREE’s continuous conservation efforts. The efforts to save a dying species are beyond commendable. Here’s to being a part of such an awesome team!!

Team Hicatee – Ed Boles, Jacob Marlin, Barney Hall and Robynn Phillips (back row), Heather Barrett and Thomas Pop (front row)

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.

Third Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop

Developing a Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, in Belize

Co-hosted by Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Zoo New England (ZNE), and the Belize Fisheries Department, the Third Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop was held online via a Zoom webinar on May 17, 2022. The purpose of the Hicatee Conservation Workshop was to bring together stakeholders to begin to develop a Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle in Belize. Organized by Dr. Ed Boles, BFREE Dermatemys Program Coordinator, with the support of BFREE staff, the workshop was facilitated by Ms. Yvette Alonzo with technical assistance from Mr. David Hedrick of TSA. The workshop was attended by 38 professionals supporting Dermatemys mawii research, conservation, and outreach, including key Government officials from the Belize Fisheries Department.

Hicatee Conservation Forum Breakout Groups

Participants divided into five breakout groups in previously identified focal areas of: Laws, Regulations and Enforcement; Community Outreach, Education and Social Research; Captive Management and Reintroductions; Biological and Ecological Research, and in situ Conservation. The groups were tasked with discussing background, ideas, and concerns for 59 proposed actions divided among seven conservation goals. Further they were responsible for modifying action descriptions, eliminating irrelevant actions, and adding actions the group identified as appropriate.

Hicatee Conservation Forum Participants

Breakout Groups Members of the Breakout groups 
Laws, Regulations, and EnforcementFelicia Cruz, Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department – Chair, Jacob Marlin, Executive Director, BFREE – (first half), Gilberto Young, Inland Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department, Peter Paul van Dijk, Red List Authority Coordinator of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, Thomas Pop, Hicatee Conservation & Research Center Manager – (first half), Debora Olivares (note taker)
Community Outreach, Education, and Social ResearchHeather Barrett, Deputy Director, BFREE – Chair, Conway Young, Administrative Officer, Community Baboon Sanctuary, Jonathan Dubon, Wildlife Fellow, BFREE, Paul Evans, Outreach Officer, University of Florida, Emilie Wilder, Field Conservation Officer, Zoo New England
Captive Management and ReintroductionsBryan Windmiller, Director of Field Conservation, Zoo New England– Chair, Elliott Jacobson, Veterinarian, University of Florida, Brian Horne, Wildlife Conservation Society, Calvin Gonzalez, Outreach Officer, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Isabelle Paquet Durand, Veterinarian, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Dudley Hendy, Fisher, Jacob Marlin (second half), Thomas Pop (second half), Julie Lester (note taker)
Biological and Ecological ResearchDay Ligon, Professor of Biology, Missouri State University – Chair, Boris Arevalo, Wildlife Conservation Society, Donald McKnight, Turtle Biologist, La Trobe University, Thomas Rainwater, Research Scientist, Clemson University, Venetia Briggs-Gonzalez, Director, Lamanai Field Research Center, Manual Gallardo, Olmaca University, Guichard Romero, D. mawii researcher in Mexico, Vanessa Kilburn, Director, TREES  Eduardo Reyes Grajales, D. mawii researcher in Mexico, Jessica Schmidt (note-taker)
In situ ConservationAndrew Walde, COO, Turtle Survival Alliance – Chair, Elma Kay, Managing Director, Belize Maya Forest Trust, Tim Gregory, TSA and BFREE Board Member, Yamira Novelo, Technical Assistant, Wildlife Conservation Society, Denise Thompson, Per Course Faculty, Missouri State University, Ed Boles, Dermatemys Program Coordinator, BFREE  
*Attendees who were not able to participate in Breakout Groups were Rick Hudson, Turtle Survival Alliance and Tyler Sanville, BFREE

Workshop Results

Results of the workshop yielded a 33-page transcript capturing input from participants, which will serve as a supporting document for the compilation of the first draft of the “Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, in Belize”. A follow-up workshop to review the draft will take place later in 2022. Completion of an integrated and inclusive plan for Belize, guided by research and decades of traditional fisher experience, is the goal. If successful in this country, the content will be exported as guidance for similar plans in Mexico and Guatemala.

The overall theme of this very successful workshop can be described as taking actions to increase research, conservation, and restoration initiatives that are inclusive of local communities and the promotion of community-based management through the full D. mawii range. Farmers, fishers, youths, and all concerned citizens are recognized as vital partners in ensuring the survival of D. mawii into the future – a theme that shall be tightly woven into the resulting conservation, management and action plan.

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.

Saying goodbye to 55 Hicatee turtles

No, more like saying see you later!

By Jonathan Dubon

Watching your children grow up and eventually moving on may be hard for some, but it is something that takes place by nature. Although I am not talking about real children, it still feels the same when I release Hicatee turtles that I have helped to take care of over the past 2 years. The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) is a multi-pronged conservation effort for Hicatee, with one of the tasks being head-start rewilding.

On April 1st, I along with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop, loaded 55 juveniles and hatchlings from the HCRC at BFREE, to be taken to a creek in north central Belize – roughly 4-hours’ drive. Upon our arrival, we met with the Feste Films crew and locals from the nearby community to conduct our releases. There was a turnout of around 15 community members, including adults and children. Feste Films documented our release as a part of their upcoming four-part series ‘Belize Uncovered’ to be available online later this year. The well-known local chef, Sean Kuylen, and International Journalist, Gelareh Darabi, were the interviewers for the film and so participated in all the day’s activities.

Community participation

Before the actual release of the turtles, we gathered and talked about why we are releasing turtles and how important they are to the environment and to the culture. I asked the children “why do you think releasing juvenile Hicatee turtles is important?” I got responses such as: “because they are getting scarce”, “it is better for the wild environment” and the one that stood out the most to me was “because they are critically endangered”. We visited this village in August of 2020 and did a much smaller release, and many of the children who attended then, also attended this time around. To know that information shared a couple years ago is reiterated and remembered means that we are on the right track.

I also mentioned to the community that we are not just releasing turtles to say we do, but we are releasing them to be a part of a long-term studying and monitoring project since this is an active study site for us. All our turtles that were released have unique identification codes, which are placed by scute notching and inserting PIT tags (a microchip inserted under the skin of the turtles). This will allow us to accurately collect data for each turtle and monitor their growth rate, age and so forth.

When it was time to place the turtles in the water, we let every child who attended release a turtle. Hopefully, this will spark a love and passion in them for protecting this species. We only released 10 of the 55 at the creek’s bank where everyone was gathered. After which, Tom and I got into 2 canoes and went up stream to release the remaining 45.

Reflecting on the day

Tom was asked, “How do you feel to release these turtles? Are you sad that you are saying goodbye?” He replied, “I am happy and excited to release these turtles. Even though they have been under my watch and care since being hatched, and I have tried my best to raise these turtles, there is no better caretaker than mother nature herself. I believe with the help of the community and everyone else, we can help them to grow and reproduce on their own. Then we can say we have successfully reintroduced Hicatee turtles into the wild.”

Overall, it was a wonderful and amazing experience that not many can say they have gotten the chance to be involved in. When we were driving off, the mood of everyone was so cheerful and bright, not because we were leaving, but because we accomplished something so important and unique. I look forward to more releases in the future and spreading information with people who may not know.

Returning Volunteers are key to the success of bi-annual Hicatee Health Assessments

A team of biologists, veterinarians, and turtle lovers gathered at BFREE in early March for our 14th bi-annual health assessment of the Central American River Turtle locally named Hicatee. We’ve learned so much since our first Hicatee health assessment in September 2014. The act of weighing, measuring, and reviewing the health of hundreds of turtles over the years, has allowed us to refine our methods and be much more focused and efficient than in those early days. 

Returning volunteers also help with our improved efficiency during the health assessments. Instead of training a new team on the various protocols, volunteers arrive armed with experience and enthusiasm. We are thrilled that the Dimmitt and Gregory family team have consistently participated in the February/ March Health Assessments since 2019. Their involvement means that BFREE staff along with Wildlife Veterinarian, Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, can jump into the required activities with the knowledge that we have competent volunteers managing each of their assigned roles. 

Of her participation in the assessment, Doris Dimmitt stated “We look forward to this every year and are always happy to help in any way that we can.” And help they do. When the Dimmitts and Gregorys arrive, they are always equipped with donated supplies for BFREE and for local schools, and they show up ready for any task. Doris and her husband Rod, whose last visit was late February 2020 just prior to COVID-19 being declared a global pandemic, especially enjoy the time in nature at BFREE and describe their annual trip as a much-needed reboot for their spirit and sense of hope for the world.  


Participants: Zoo New England Staff: Bryan Windmiller and Emilie Wilder; Visiting Veterinarian: Elliott Jacobson, Professor Emeritus, University of Florida, Visiting Biologist: Dave Rostal, Southern Georgia University, Local Veterinarian: Isabelle Paquet-Durand, Visiting Volunteers: Doris Dimmitt, Rod Dimmit, Emily Gregory, Tim Gregory, and Alexi Dart. BFREE staff: Thomas Pop, Jonathan Dubon, Mark Canti, Elmer Tzalam, Jacob Marlin, and Heather Barrett. BFREE Team Hicatee chef: Edwardo Pop.

Thanks to Zoo New England for their support of this health assessment as well as for their on-going support.


Additional Blog Posts About the March 2022 Hicatee Health Assessment: