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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.

The Importance of Involving Local Communities in Conservation

I vividly recall my first time on the Belize River, navigating a canoe while assisting in population surveys for a Hicatee assessment. Despite my Belizean upbringing, my familiarity was primarily inland, leaving the fishing communities’ way of life somewhat foreign to me. Engaging in river-based research marked my initial exposure to the intricate relationship between these communities and the waterway.

The river serves not only as a food source but also as a gathering place for families, where they bond through storytelling and laughter on a relaxing Sunday afternoon. This is a place where elders pass on swimming and life lessons to their grandchildren, while youngsters test their aquatic stamina through diving games. Apart from fishing, the river holds multiple significant meanings to the communities who consider it their backyard.

“Save the Hicatee” banners have been created and signed by community members (young and old) across Belize who share the concern for this critically endangered species and who want to take action.

By observing fishing communities seamlessly blend into their environment, I started to see that, even though we all live in the same country, different communities have their own special ways of connecting with the environment we all share. This recognition as well as my recent experience studying abroad has helped me to realize that integrating local knowledge in the work that we do allows for the development of conservation strategies that are culturally appropriate and tailored to the specific needs of the area.

In Belize, Hicatee turtles have historically been harvested as a traditional and celebratory food source, resulting in a significant decline in their population. The consumption of Hicatee meat holds deep -roots within the Belizean population. I believe it is our responsibility as conservationists with a scientific perspective to consider how we can address this cultural tradition while also preserving the integrity of the species. Local perspectives can help us identify potential conflicts between Hicatee conservation efforts and local needs.

Incorporating these communities in our work can also improve the effectiveness of our research. For example, by communicating with local fishers we can identify areas where Hicatee turtles are in abundance but are being heavily harvested; this information can help us make informed decisions about areas to protect. Hiring dedicated locals as riverkeepers of these protected areas also offers the opportunity to create sustainable livelihoods within target communities. By involving communities in conservation efforts, we hope to foster a sense of ownership and responsibility. When people are valued and engaged, they are more likely to actively participate in protecting their environment as well as the biodiversity that inhabits it. 

To effectively contribute to the preservation of the Hicatee turtles, it’s crucial to involve community members of all ages, backgrounds and professions in our conservation and research endeavors. Some examples include the involvement of community leaders, local fisherfolks who know every twist and turn of the rivers, the popular food vendors down the street who help to keep the community fed, farmers who provide us with local produce and the dedicated educators who are shaping young minds. In closing, Biodiversity in ecosystems contributes to resilience and adaptability. Similarly, diversity in conservation teams enhances adaptability to changing circumstances and challenges.

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.

Hicatee Health Check

This year’s first Hicatee health check  took place on April 4th and 5th at the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC).

The HCRC, a joint effort between BFREE and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), is a captive-breeding facility for the critically endangered Central American River Turtle (more commonly known as Hicatee). 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.

The April health checks assessed the nearly 100 hicatee turtles in captivity at the HCRC.  First, hatchlings 9 months to 2 years old followed by the 45 adults from each of the two ponds were weighed, measured (plastrons, carapace, tail, and nails), checked for overall physical conditions, and reproductive evaluations were performed.

The team consisted of Dewey Maddox, Veterinary nurse, and Emily Fyfe, Senior Herpetology Keeper, from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Robert Mendyk, Curator of Herpetology at the Audubon Zoo, Dr. Isabel Paquet-Durand, founder and director of the Belize Wildlife & Referral Clinic, Dr. Raymond Carthy, Nichole Bishop and Dr. Sean Sharp from the University of Florida, Vanessa Kilburn from Toucan Ridge Ecology & Education Society, and Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett, Tom Pop, Jaren Serano and Tyler Sanville of BFREE, as well as volunteers Will Jones and Tybren Vialdores and Aimee Mitchell.

BFREE aims to complete bi-annual health checks on the turtles housed at the HCRC to help further inform and influence conservation strategies and actions. The next health check is scheduled for September 2018.

Currently, Dermatemys mawii is classified as Critically Endangered (facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the near future) by the International Union for Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), listed as endangered under the provisions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Special note for our friends in the US: If you find yourself near The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, be sure to visit the Emerald Valley Aviary where you can see three hicatee, the only place in the US where this rare and unusual turtle is on exhibit.

 

Hicatee Awareness Month FAQ

Hicatee Awareness Month is well underway with lots of exciting updates and opportunities to get involved. We’ve compiled a list of important links so that you don’t miss anything! 

‘Hope For Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle’

A 16-minute natural history documentary is now available to watch on YouTube. This film highlights the cultural significance of the hicatee in Belize, the environmental pressures propelling it toward extinction as well as the current work being done in Belize to save the species.

For a link to download the film, send an email request to: contact@bfreebz.org

Hicatee Toolkit 

The Toolkit was created to share various ways you can get involved in supporting Hicatee Awareness Month. Host a viewing party, take the pledge or fundraise to support the HCRC for a chance to adopt and name your own turtle. 

Hicatee Resources 

Hicatee Resources can be used to find facts about the turtles. Use them at your viewing party, in your classroom or just impress your friends with your new turtley awesome knowledge! 

Buy a T-Shirt from WildStuff!

Our friends at WildStuff Apparel have created a one of a kind National Hickatee Day T-Shirt. All proceeds will be donated to the HCRC!

Facebook Cover Images 

Check out our special Hicatee Facebook Profile Cover images. You can change your cover photo to show your support for Hicatee Awareness Month! 

Take the Hicatee Pledge

You can be a Hicatee Hero! Simply take the Hicatee Pledge and send us your #Shellfie! 

Meet Lauren Video

Lauren is a #HicateeHero and inspires all of us to continue working to #SaveTheHicatee.

Volunteer at the HCRC

We are looking for volunteers to support the ongoing work at the HCRC. Find out more by clicking on the link! 

What is the HCRC?

Find out more about the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center located at the BFREE Biological Field Station in southern Belize. 

Donate to the HCRC 

Here is your chance to adopt and name a turtle! We encourage you to get creative with fundraising or turn your viewing party into a fundraiser. With a $1,000 donation to the HCRC you can adopt and name a hicatee turtle. Your turtle’s chosen name will be engraved on a plaque at the HCRC. 

BFREE Summer Internship Reflection

BFREE Summer Internship Reflection

By: Jaren Serano

This summer I had the opportunity to be a part of something very special. I became immersed in a unique classroom with seemingly no boundaries. It all started on July 31st, 2017, this part of my internship I would like to refer to it simply as “the walk”.  I was excited about embarking on this journey, but little did I know what Mother Nature had in store for me prior to even reaching BFREE’s grounds.

From the Southern Highway, I hiked in some 8 miles. Now that may not seem like much but given that I did not pack light it seemed more like 80 miles.  While hiking I regretted several times packing so many stuff.  Although this internship took place during the summer, it was also the wet season, so saying the road was muddy would be an understatement. I had to trek through red clay mud that was at least knee deep.  After a couple hours, I eventually reached the BFREE research station looking as if I just ran the Boston Marathon.  The staff was very welcoming and helpful in getting me settled in. All in all, the walk in will forever be one of those memories that you might not appreciate in the moment but when looking back you will laugh and appreciate every footprint that was made in that red clay that day.

Turtle Conservation

The two week internship that I was blessed to be a part of consisted of daily caretaking of the hicatee turtles.  In the mornings, using a caliper, measurement of each hatchling’s carapace length was taken and recorded. Also, daily weight was taken and recorded using a digital gram scale. I was fascinated by the way how Tom Pop (HCRC Manager) showed such passion for his job. He treated each hatchling as if it was his own child. What I liked the most was in the afternoons when we would do some monitoring by the pond, it was like playing a game hide and go seek, only because the adult hicatees were the ones doing all the hiding! We were lucky if we got to see their heads popping up to the surface too quickly grab a breath of air.  When it came to feeding time I would go with Tom to the river banks where we would collect about two wheelbarrows filled with fig leaves.  The turtles would then greedily munch on the leaves which we gave them.

Jaren collects leaves to feed the hatchlings.

The hatchlings prefer much softer leaves such as the ones from young Cecropia trees. Two of the groups were offered feces (Yes, feces!) from the adults in order to inoculate them with the appropriate gut microflora. But before you get all grossed out – the presence of gut microflora is said to play an important role in the turtle’s ability to break down plant matter and absorb vital nutrients from their diet.  

I found this hands-on approach of learning very insightful because I got a chance to study close up the biological aspects of these Central American river turtles. I believe that just like humans, each hicatee has its own unique personality and special traits. They surely have a way of slowly working their way into your hearts!

While at BFREE I not only had the chance to work with the hicatees but I had the opportunity to pick Tom Pop’s mind about different wildlife around the area. BFREE is a nature lover’s playground. The diversity of flora and fauna is jaw-dropping; I soaked in every second of it all. I was very inquisitive and every day I wanted to know more because all of it was intriguing to me.  

Ranger for a Day

I also had a rare opportunity to be a ranger for the day with a fellow ranger, Mr. Sipriano Canti. This part of the internship could simply be described as “Rangers on the go!”  

Mr. Canti took Manuel Balona (another BFREE Intern ) and me to Observation Post 1 where we were educated about the purpose of the facility.  In short, it serves as a marker of the property boundary line for farmers and hunters using nearby land; this helps reduce illegal encroachment into the BFREE reserve. Along the boundary line road on the way to OP1, we noticed intensive farming of various crops such as corn, cilantro, and red kidney beans. To our surprise we also saw a huge portion of land set aside specifically for grazing and rearing of cattle, in close proximity to the reserve. A Forest Department established buffer zone separating the boundary line from the reserve helps prevent these types of agriculture from entering the reserve.

While at OP1 we took full advantage of what Mr. Canti would refer to as “the ranger lifestyle.” There we did different patrols all hours of the day and night. It was an experience that I will forever cherish.

Manuel Balona (left) and Jaren Serano (right), assist HCRC Manager, Tom Pop (center) at the HCRC.

All in all, the experience will definitely be one for the books.   Never in a million years did I believe I would be given such an opportunity to be a part of something this moving. It was great to be around people who share mutual feelings when it comes to conservation making two weeks go by too quickly. The rainforest is truly our classroom.

I will continue sharing the knowledge learned at BFREE among peers and anyone who is willing to lend an ear. I believe this internship brought me steps closer to my ultimate goal of someday becoming a zoologist and helping with various conservation efforts in my country. 

International Turtle Conservation and Biology Symposium

The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) was featured in the 15th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Fresh Water Turtles.  The meeting, which is the largest gathering of non-marine turtle biologists in the world, was held in historic Charleston, South Carolina and attended by over 300 participants.

Heather Barrett and Peter Paul van Dijk at the Turtle Survival Center. Peter Paul was honored during the symposium with the John L. Behler Turtle Conservation Award

Turtle Survival Center Field Trip

Field trip participants visited enclosures throughout the Turtle Survival Center

The pre-symposium field trip to the new Turtle Survival Center was a highlight. The TSC is owned by Turtle Survival Alliance and represents a new and important direction for the organization. The Center is a captive setting for turtle and tortoise species that are critically endangered and that face an uncertain future in the wild. The TSC is dedicated to building up robust captive populations of these species. On Sunday, hundreds of participants were bused from the conference hotel to the TSC in order to tour the Center’s many facilities including the various complexes, the incubation room, and areas that are still being developed.

Hicatee Presentations

Symposium activities officially began on Monday. BFREE staff were honored to be invited to present the latest news and outcomes at the HCRC.  As part of the Captive Husbandry session, Jacob Marlin detailed the development of the HCRC as a facility and described what has been learned on site about the reproductive biology of the Hicatee.

Heather Barrett presented “Country-wide Efforts to Promote the Conservation of the Critically Endangered Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) in Belize, Central America.” She outlined the recent history of conservation outreach for the hicatee including the formation of the Hicatee Conservation Network and the

Each TSA project country is featured in a poster at the Turtle Survival Center

production of a documentary film. Heather’s session was followed by a special film screening of “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle.” This was the first time the new documentary by Richard and Carol Foster was shown publicly. “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee,” was well received by the audience who was eager to view rare underwater footage of the turtle and appreciated the breadth of information covered in the short film.

In addition to BFREE staff presenting HCRC findings at the conference, Nichole Bishop, Ph.D. Candidate from the University of Florida, described her research related to the 2017 hicatee hatchlings in her talk, “Is Coprophagy an Important Management Decision for the Captive Breeding of Herbivorous Turtles?”

The symposium offered many opportunities for conversations and brainstorming on issues relating to the hicatee and other endangered turtles and tortoises. The symposium was an uplifting and inspirational event and BFREE staff left feeling impressed by the countless individuals dedicating their lives to the conservation of turtle species around the globe.