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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.

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.

 

Hicatee Awareness Month

We are thrilled to announce this October as the First Annual Hicatee Awareness Month! 

To kick off the month, the Turtle Survival Alliance, BFREE and Wildlife Film Productions will be releasing an exciting documentary providing a rare glimpse of the critically endangered hicatee turtle on October 2, 2017.

‘Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle,’ is a 16-minute natural history film produced by Emmy-award winning wildlife filmmakers, Richard and Carol Foster. The critically endangered Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii), known in Belize as the Hicatee, has been intensely harvested for its meat. The 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.

Make sure to save the date and begin telling your friends and family now! Once the film is released, we encourage you to host a viewing party at your home or in your community.

A Volunteer Toolkit will be made available in late September on the BFREE website. The Toolkit will include materials and info sheets for you to use at your viewing party. It will also include many ways to partake in the Hicatee Awareness Month.

Save the Date: 

October 2 – On World Habitat Day, ‘Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle,’ film will be released. Begin gathering your friends and family for viewing parties and send us photos of your events #SaveTheHicatee!

October 17 – National Hicatee Day in Belize, show your support from around the world and send us your #Shellfie wearing something green!

October is sure to be a turtley amazing shellebration

We will continue to share updates on Hicatee Awareness Month, please follow along on Facebook, Instagram, and our new Hicatee Center page on the BFREE Website!

 

 

 

Funding for the film was generously provided by Columbus Zoo & Aquarium Conservation Fund.

Hicatee Health Check

Hicatee Health Checks 2016

Dr. Shane Boylan (left) performs ultrasounds on the female turtles to determine if there were eggs or follicles present. He is assisted by Dr. Thomas Rainwater while Tom Pop and Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand of Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic look on.

Between September 17 and 19, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) team joined BFREE staff in Belize during mid-September to perform annual health checks on all of the turtles at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). The team consisted of Dr. Shane Boylan and Dr. Thomas Rainwater who were joined by Dr. Isabel Paquet, a veterinarian based out of the Belize’s Cayo District, Felicia Cruz and Gilberto Young of Belize Fisheries Department, Robert Mendyk of the Jacksonville Zoo, Dr. Ben Atkinson of Flagler College, Jacob Marlin and Tom Pop of BFREE, as well as Richard and Carol Foster, who were there to continue gathering footage for their documentary film.

Currently, there are 54 Hicatee at the center, including: 20 adult reproductive females, 16 confirmed males, many of which are either reproductive or just becoming reproductive, 6 sub-adults whose sex is yet to be determined, seven juveniles hatched in 2015 and five hatchlings from 2016.

Examinations revealed that 13 individuals previously thought to be female due to coloration have now been proven to be males because they have developed the distinct yellow head associated with adult male hicatee and are showing other signs of male sexual maturity.

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Ms. Felicia Cruz, Belize Fisheries Officer and Dr. Ben Atkinson, Flagler College hold new recruits at the HCRC.

Ultrasounds performed by Shane Boylan, DVM from South Carolina Aquarium showed reproductive activity (eggs and follicles were present) in 20 of the females.  Based on these tests, we are hopeful that December will bring between 60-100 eggs. Additionally, the seven juveniles and the five recent hatchlings are all in good health and are continuing to grow.

In coming months, we will deploy a remote video camera powered by a solar system well as battery-operated camera traps in an attempt to document the females nesting. No nesting footage has ever been recorded on the Hicatee. In fact, this is the first time a captive population of Hicatee has been studied with such detail which will allow us to expand the existing knowledge on the species.

The captive breeding program continues to exceed our expectations and we anticipate it will continue growing exponentially. Current infrastructure is needed and will require immediate and extensive expansion. If you are interested in supporting our efforts to conserve this critically endangered river turtle as a donor, partner or volunteer, please contact Heather Barrett at hbarrett@bfreebz.org.

Hicatee Health Checks 2016

Robert Mendyk of the Jacksonville Zoo assists with measuring an adult male Hicatee.

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).

Latest Hicatee turtle hatchlings for the HCRC

 

Hicatee hatchling by Carol Foster

Hicatee hatchling by Carol Farneti Foster

On May 6 and 7, four Hicatee turtles hatched under the watchful eyes of wildlife filmmakers, Richard and Carol Foster, who documented the exciting events. They captured this amazing footage. The Fosters’ were contracted by the Turtle Survival Alliance and BFREE to produce a short documentary film in order to to improve local awareness and appreciation for the uniqueness and the plight of the Hicatee across its small range of southern Mexico, northern Guatemala and Belize. The film will focus on the turtle’s status in Belize and will describe its rapid decline due to over-hunting (for the purpose of human consumption), and will highlight current conservation efforts.

Ten eggs were laid by an adult hicatee at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center on December 14, 2015. Seven were deemed viable and four were transferred to the Fosters’ residence outside of Belmopan for incubation at a constant temperature of 29 degrees celcius in hopes of producing females. The rest of the clutch remained at BFREE for incubation at ambient temperature. After 149 of incubation at the Fosters’ residence outside of Belmopan, four turtles emerged – tiny and healthy.  This was 44 days sooner than last year’s seven hatchlings, which emerged after 193 days of incubation at ambient temperature!  We are still waiting for the remaining two viable eggs from the December 14 clutch to hatch.

Initial funding for the film is being provided by the Columbus Zoo and the Houston Zoo.