The Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys Mawii), known locally as the Hicatee, is classed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List and is one of the 25 most endangered freshwater turtle species in the world. The Hicatee can only be found in river reaches within Central American countries such as Southern Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize. With populations continuing to decline due to exploitation from unsustainable hunting practices and habitat loss, the protection of the Hicatee turtle population is of utmost importance to the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE).
One of the greatest threats Hicatees face in Belize is from hunting for their meat and shells which is used in traditional Belizean celebrations. There is currently national legislation in place within Belize to control the level of harvest of this species through implementing a closed season, limiting catch to three Hicatees per person, and five per vehicle, and through the establishment of certain protected populations throughout Belize. Currently, there are no protected populations within the Toledo District.
Whilst there is limited data on the breeding and life cycle behaviour of Hicatee turtles, the data that does exist illustrates significant population declines, suggesting that current legislation is not successful and protecting this endangered species. Due to this, TIDE, in partnership with the Conservation Leadership Program (CLP) carried out monitoring to assess the number of Hicatees within the Rio Grande River catchment to address the deficiency of scientific data and inform management decisions on the local and national levels.
Before monitoring of the Hicatee turtle began, TIDE carried out social surveys with local hunters and communities to gain an understanding of where these turtles can be found and community views on the status of the Hicatee Turtle populations. A positive finding from interviews has shown many hunters would actually support a longer closed season to ensure Hicatees are present in future years.
From the information collected, over a period of six months from December 2013 – May 2014, TIDE rangers carried out field surveys on the Rio Grande River. Over the period December to January, Rangers carried out nesting surveys and in the following period of February through to May, the team employed day and night time surveys with a focus on areas highlighted to them by local hunters.
Spotlight surveys were carried out by boat and a small net was used to capture turtles to allow for data collection. In addition, trammel nets (large layered nets which enclose turtles within a small area of the river), were used to capture turtles in specific locations along the river. Once data was collected, turtles were marked with a unique numbering system. A radio telemetry transmitter was then attached to four of the turtles caught to allow for tracking and monitoring of Hicatee movement.
Throughout the Hicatee project, TIDE was running an education and outreach project within the local communities and schools to raise awareness of the impacts over-hunting of an endangered species has, to try and reduce the instances of hunting of the Hicatee turtle. As part of their Ridge to Reef Expedition, two volunteers, Saul and Joel got involved with a puppet show at a local school about protecting the Hicatee, even dressing up as a giant Hicatee turtle!
The project carried out 30 hours of nest surveys in which three Hicatee nests were confirmed. From this, five eggs were monitored and a total of 3 hatchlings were successful, with two surviving until release.
In total 105 hours of netting surveys from spotlight surveys and trammel net surveys were conducted, identifying preferred habitats for Hicatees (deep pools and eddies) and collecting data from eleven turtles. Ten of those captured were sub adult females and one mature male Hicatee was found.
Results from the radio telemetry transmitter suggest that Hicatee turtles travel very short distances, with the furthest estimated distance of 200 meters from capture point.
The findings from this study showed that all female turtles captured were not of harvestable size under current laws, leading to concern about the impacts of current hunting restrictions. It was also found that the largest turtles captured were found the furthest distance from local hunting communities.
The most popular habitat type for Hicatees is in deep pools and areas surrounded by riparian trees which act as cover and a food source for the turtles.
The outcomes of this study suggest that the Hicatee population has potential to flourish if stronger regulations are enforced. The occurrence of three nest sites with hatchlings present is a sign that the population can rebound. With increased education and awareness to local buffer communities about the regulations, the Hicatee population can be protected and conserved. Further and ongoing research is being carried out at TIDE to understand the life cycles and breeding behaviour of this species.
During the Ridge to Reef Expedition in 2014, volunteers got stuck into Hicatee conservation by creating a Hicatee pond, digging a deep pool along the Rio Grande River to provide a safe habitat to enable monitoring of Hicatee growth to gain an understanding of the rate at which a Hicatee turtle matures. The project was developed after the study highlighted the lack of information about Hicatee turtle lifecycles and it was designed based upon the favoured habitats of Hicatees as being deep pools with the presence of riparian trees.
Team Expedition Volunteers digging Hicatee pond
Volunteer holding Hicatee Turtle Hatchling
R2R's Saul dressed as Hicatee for puppet show
TIDE team digging Hicatee pond
Other ongoing projects at TIDE which have been developed to improve the quality of the Rio Grande River and the habitats for Hicatee turtles is reforestation of the riparian river zone using species of Inga and Fig trees. There will be plenty of opportunities for future Ridge to Reef volunteers to help conserve the Hicatee turtle through monitoring surveys and reforestation of the Rio Grande River.
To read the full report please click here: CLP Hicatee Survey In Rio Grande Southern Belize
Credit goes to: Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) Staff, Conservation Leadership Programme (CLP) and Ya’axche Conservation Trust.
Team Members involved: Elmar Requena, Marty Alvarez, Cordelia Requena, Shamae Balona, Roberta Pennell, Rosendo Coy, Pastor Ayala, Marcus Tut, Louis Ishim
Watch the video below where TIDE’s Science Research Assistant Marty Alvarez discusses the project in greater detail and releases Hicatee turtles into the Rio Grande River.