Belize Mobilizes for the Endangered Hicatee Turtle

dermatemys_captured_on_the_temash_river04.20.10

On December 7, 2010, the first ever Hickatee Conservation Forum and Workshop was held at the University of Belize (UB), Belmopan Campus. The event was organized by the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), in collaboration with the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) at UB and the Belize Fisheries Department. The purpose of the workshop was to bring together members of the scientific community, government officials, and Belize’s extensive NGO community to share information regarding the Hickatee or Central American river turtle (Dermatemys mawi).

Ranked Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List, D. mawi is found in three countries including Mexico, where it has experienced catastrophic declines; Guatemala, where the status is poorly known (though heavily hunted); and Belize, where populations are steadily declining but still likely represent the species’ stronghold. However, the TSA-sponsored countrywide river survey by Thomas Rainwater in Spring 2010 indicated a continued downward spiral of population numbers when compared against survey results from the 1980s (Moll) and 1990s (Polisar). Thomas’s work proved somewhat catalytic in Belize and mobilized the conservation NGO community to seek greater involvement in protecting the Hickatee. Eating Hickatee is a widespread and culturally engrained practice, and collecting pressures are especially heavy leading up to Easter. When large- scale commercial harvesting occurs, populations can crash rapidly and there are several examples of local extinctions in Belize. Regulations and enforcement are currently inadequate to protect the species, not only in Belize but throughout their range.

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The morning session featured various presentations on the Hickatee, including one from a delegation from Guatemala, and set the stage for the working session later in the afternoon. Rick Hudson challenged the assembled group to “do something transformational for the Hickatee” and said he believed that the “time and place are right in Belize” to achieve this goal. This roundtable workshop produced some important outcomes, first and foremost being the formation of a Hickatee Conservation and Monitoring Network (HCMN). This network will provide a framework for sharing of information and the development of conservation actions designed to reverse the downward trend that Hickatee populations are undergoing. The ERI agreed to organize and coordinate this network, and in general to work to sustain the momentum generated by the workshop. In particular, the environmental NGO community – due to their broad experience and commitment – is well-positioned to positively impact the Hickatee’s future. Without the structure and network provided by this able group we would certainly face daunting challenges with implementation. The fact that a well-organized cadre of motivated NGOs exist bodes well for the future of the network and the Hickatee. At the conclusion of the workshop, each and every NGO in attendance agreed to take on a specific role to keep the process moving, committing to a range of activities. These include a national awareness campaign, poacher surveys, hosting training workshops, community education and outreach, enforcement, data collection and specific site surveys. The groups and NGOs that were represented at the workshop and that will participate in the network include BFREE, Toledo Institute for Development and the Environment, Ya’axche Conservation Trust, Lamanai Field Research Center, ERI, WCS, Belize Bird Rescue, WildTracks, Gales Point Wildlife Sanctuary, SATIIM, Belize Zoo, Belize Vivarium, TSA, Belize Wildlife Conservation Network, and the Belize Fisheries and Forestry Departments.

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The next step for the TSA will be to find funding to train, equip and empower various members of the Network. The plan is for Thomas Rainwater to return to Belize in 2011 to conduct a series of training workshop, both in the north and south, to continue building capacity within Belize to conduct science-based and standardized monitoring of Hickatee populations. We will also be looking for expertise in graphic design for the awareness campaign (we will need a consistent iconic symbol). The TSA also wants to conduct basic husbandry research into the reproductive biology of the Hickatee, and to set up a series of ponds to test the feasibility of breeding this species under captive but semi-natural conditions in Belize.

For a short one day workshop, this was extremely productive and one that we predict (and hope) will be catalytic. Saving the Hickatee – in Belize and elsewhere – will require a “game changer.” Business as usual will not work. We believe we will look back on December 7, 2010 as the day the Hickatee’s future got brighter.