Last month, the BFREE reserve became the focus of a mark-recapture survey by the Turtle Survival Alliance’s – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG). After a year’s delay due to the COVID pandemic, the team was thrilled to get approval from Belize Fisheries Department to implement their research.
The TSA-NAFTRG team’s goals included establishing safe protocols for surveying freshwater turtles on the property, training BFREE staff on those methods, locating appropriate long-term survey sites and completing an initial assessment. Their timing couldn’t have been better: with the onset of rainy season, creeks were flowing, puddles formed regularly and turtles were everywhere.
The TSA-NAFTRG team of Eric Munscher, Arron Tuggle, Andy Weber, Collin McAvinchey, and J. Brian Hauge were joined by BFREE staff, Tom Pop, and Jonathan Dubon as well as BFREE Fellowship Program Alum, Jaren Serano, who helped with the survey just prior to returning to the U.S. for grad school. TSA COO, Andrew Walde, and TSA Board Member/ WCS Coordinator for Turtle Conservation, Brian Horne, were also present and able to spend time in the field during the survey.
This initial assessment was deemed an incredible success with 227 turtles captured, marked, measured and safely released. Turtles found included Meso-American Slider, White-lipped Mud Turtle, Tabasco Mud Turtle, Scorpion Mud Turtle, Mexican Giant Musk Turtle, Central American Snapping Turtle, and the Furrowed Wood Turtle – representing seven of Belize’s nine freshwater turtles. (Fun fact: the Central American River turtle/ Hicatee is the only Belizean freshwater turtle that does not naturally occur on the BFREE reserve!)
We are grateful to the TSA-NAFTRG team for supplying us with the expertise and field equipment needed to ensure this survey continues and we look forward to their return trip next July!
BFREE PRESENTATIONS AT THE 42nd IHS SYMPOSIUM
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.
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.
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 email@example.com.
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).
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.