by Heather Lowe
On February 25-26, 2016, Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) in collaboration with Turtle Survival Alliance, the Belize Fisheries Department, and the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens hosted the 2nd Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop at the BFREE Field Station in southern Belize. Unique to Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, the Central American River Turtle, locally known as the Hicatee (Dermatemys mawii), has been driven to the edge of extinction throughout its range by illegal harvesting and overconsumption.
To address this risk, the forum brought together stakeholders from the scientific community, government officials, NGOs and other stakeholders to share findings and information on the status of the Hicatee turtle, present ongoing initiatives, and map out future efforts to conserve this critically endangered river turtle. Twenty-seven participants traveled from Guatemala, Brazil, the USA and from within Belize to attend the two-day workshop.
Four major themes were addressed during the forum 1) Legislation and Law Enforcement, 2) Public Outreach and Education, 3) Captive Management, and 4) Research and Surveys. Presentations by invited participants focused on regional efforts within these areas. Each theme was deliberated on in detail. From these discussions two working groups were formed. One working group will compile a report based on the most current harvest and survey data and will present recommendations to the Belize Fisheries Department for a revised version of the laws and regulations regarding the Hicatee. The second working group will develop a long-term research and monitoring strategy including the identification of priority populations for protection that can serve as source populations for the species’ recovery. Additionally, workshop attendees participated in an IUCN Red List meeting to update the species report– now ten years out of date – based on the most current information, This species continues to be ranked Critically Endangered and faces a high risk of extinction throughout its range. Participants also discussed advocating for the Hicatee to become officially recognized as the “National Reptile of Belize.”