Six years after the first Hicatee egg was laid and hatched at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) at BFREE, we released 145 hatchlings turtles into the wild – representing the first significant release of captive bred and hatched Hicatee in Belize. The release not only provided the opportunity to increase the wild population, but also and most significantly to conduct a comparative early-life stage growth study of the 2020 cohort of 185 Hicatee hatchlings. Turtles were randomly assigned groups which were then designated for 1) release into a natural closed aquatic system with no other Hicatee present, 2) release into a natural closed aquatic system where other Hicatee are present, 3) release into an natural open aquatic system where other Hicatee are present, 4) release into the HCRC rearing pond at BFREE, and 5) kept in tanks indoors at the BFREE lab. After, eight weeks, turtles are recaptured, weighed, measured, and data collected on a number of parameters to compare the conditions of each group to determine overall health.
One of the release sites located adjacent to a wildlife sanctuary a nearby village provided the opportunity to get local community members involved. Representatives from BFREE, Belize Turtle Ecology Lab, and the Belize Fisheries Department met village leaders and a small group of school children one morning in early August. The organizations introduced the community to the captive-breeding program taking place at BFREE, presented on current Hicatee research, reviewed Belize’s laws pertaining to Hicatee, and described current outreach efforts including the upcoming fourth annual Hicatee Awareness Month in October. After the presentation, the group walked to the river’s edge where they released a dozen of the critically endangered captive-bred turtles into the wild.
The release and the associated outreach event represent a major milestone in our ongoing effort to save the Hicatee turtle from extinction. These milestones could not have been reached without the ongoing support of our project partner, the Turtle Survival Alliance. Their belief and engagement in Hicatee conservation efforts has allowed the project to continue moving forward even in the most difficult of times.