The Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, is a large, aquatic freshwater turtle found along the coastal lowlands of southern Mexico, northern Guatemala and Belize. Locally known in Belize as the Hicatee, D. mawii has been intensely harvested for its meat. It has been virtually eliminated from much of its former range in southern Mexico, while its status in Guatemala remains unclear. The lone surviving representative of the family Dermatemydidae, D. mawii, has a unique evolutionary lineage. Classified as Critically Endangered (facing an extremely high risk of extinction) by the IUCN Red List, it is listed in the report, “Turtles in Trouble: The World’s 25 Most Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles – 2018,” by the Turtle Conservation Coalition.
Hicatee Conservation & Research Center
After a country-wide survey conducted by Dr. Thomas Rainwater to determine the status of the Hicatee in Belize in 2010, the BFREE and Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) partnership began to launch a multi-prong conservation effort to halt the decline of the species. Shortly after, TSA approached BFREE during this time and planning began to construct the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC) at the BFREE field station. The goal was to create an assurance colony and investigate the reproductive biology, nesting ecology, and feasibility of breeding Hicatee in captivity. In 2011, construction on the HCRC began and by 2014 ponds were stocked with adult and sub-adult turtles. The HCRC is the only ex-situ facility in Belize maintaining Dermatemys mawii (Hicatee turtle) in captivity for the purpose of studying aspects of its biology and behavior.
The HCRC includes three ponds, – two breeding ponds for adults and one rearing pond for captive-born hatchlings. A well and solar-powered pumping system supply 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-foot chain-link fence was constructed for the protection of the breeding population and hatchling turtles born into the project and therefore surrounds the perimeter of the two ponds. Floating islands covered in vegetation were constructed for each pond to 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.
Why Captive Breeding?
Captive-breeding offers 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 comprehensive conservation and recovery effort for D. mawii in Belize.
October is Hicatee Awareness Month!
October 2017 marked the first-ever Hicatee Awareness Month! This month-long celebration helps raise awareness for the national treasure. In 2017, a toolkit was created for participants to take part in various activities to support hicatee conservation. In 2018, a national poster contest was held with more than 25 participants competing. Additionally, in 2018 and 2019, over 200 pre and primary schools in Belize received hard copies of educational packets curated by BFREE including fact-sheets and activity pages to inspire educators and students to learn more about the hicatee. Digital copies of all resources were shared with every school in the country. Mark your calendar for October 17th, National Hicatee Day, a global day to recognize this incredible species.
Education at the HCRC
BFREE hosts high school and college student groups from Belize, the US, Canada, and the UK. 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. Recent visitors to the HCRC have participated in the national #SaveTheHicatee awareness campaign by signing a petition banner thereby pledging their commitment to the conservation of the species.
The Big Picture
Agriculture in tropical countries including Belize continues to expand at an alarming rate. Accompanying this increase in agricultural production is the challenge of conserving biodiversity and maintaining the ecosystem services provided by tropical forests. Agroforestry has been identified as a potential solution to minimize threats to tropical forests and provide economic income to local communities. However, little is known about the trade-offs between shade-grown crops, such as cacao, and the ecological communities and ecosystem services provided by tropical forests. By measuring and comparing ecosystem functioning and ecosystem services across a continuum of tropical forests to high-to-low shade cacao plantations we can start to determine win-win scenarios that allow for optimized cacao production along with optimizing the provision of ecosystem services and conservation of biodiversity. Given the increasing expansion of cacao in tropical agro-ecosystems around the world, the BFREE Cacao-based agroforestry research program has global implications.
Discovering “The Mother” of Chocolate at BFREE
Recently discovered deep in the rainforests of southern Belize lies a remnant population of ancient wild Cacao trees. This small pocket of cacao trees was found by Jacob Marlin growing on the 1,153 acre BFREE privately protected area located at the foothills of the Maya Mountains – an area described as one of the least disturbed and largest continuous expanses of tropical rainforest north of the Amazon. Based on the advice of cacao experts, beans from the wild trees were submitted for genetic testing to the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP). The results determined that this could be the original chocolate tree, 100% pure Criollo parentage, grown and revered by the ancient Mayan Civilizations, and one of the few pure wild cacaos known to exist on the planet. In 2015, the beans were given the designation of “heirloom fine flavor” by HCP, only the 11th chocolate in the world to receive such an honor. Since this designation, BFREE has become an active partner with HCP. As part of HCP’s work, they have generously been providing small grants to BFREE over the past two years to assist with the development of our work to propagate heirloom fine flavor cacao.
Why It Matters
These discoveries were especially exciting to us because of the inherent conservation value – the variety of cacao appears to require environmental conditions that incentivize tropical forest conservation. A high percentage of shade and a structurally diverse forested environment provide natural ecological barriers to disease and cross-pollination, and are likely the conditions necessary for productivity; ultimately correlating a high-value crop to a diverse and healthy rainforest habitat. As a result of this discovery, BFREE began a project to preserve and propagate this rare and wild ancient heirloom fine flavor cacao while investigating its economic, social, and environmental benefits. Propagated from these wild trees grown under a variety of different conditions, BFREE has over 15 acres of cacao growing in an agroforestry environment, where wildlife like Jaguars, Tapirs, Howler monkeys, Harpy eagles, and Scarlet macaws make their home.
The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund
HCP was established in 2012 with the mission to “identify and preserve fine flavor “heirloom” cacao for the preservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of farming communities”. Launched in partnership with the USDA and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, HCP www.hcpcacao.org formed in response to the global pressures of environmental change, deforestation, and economic influences threatening the world’s supply of high quality, flavorful cacao. Recognizing these endangered cacao trees are the foundation for not only delicious chocolate but also the livelihood of many farmers and farming communities, the HCP is the first initiative to identify and map the world of high quality, fine flavor cacao and certify growers of these endangered trees.