1) Ed, you were recently named as the Dermatemys Program Coordinator. Could you please tell us more about your vision for Central American River Turtle, aka Hicatee, conservation and what you see as the first priority?
Ultimately the vision is to promote collaborative protection and recovery of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) throughout its range, but the immediate challenge starts within Belize where there are still a few relatively healthy populations. Currently I am focused on the lower Belize and Sibun rivers where I have a long history working with communities and local NGOs involved in conservation. The lower Belize River Valley in particular has a significant number of Hicatee, from Whitewater Lagoon and Labouring Creek to its confluence with the Belize River, and from Cox Lagoon and Mussel Creek to its confluence with the Belize River. These two tributaries and the reach of the Belize River and other tributaries they define constitute not only a concentration of prime Hicatee habitat, but the highest concentration of Hicatee fishers in the country. Working through the six protected areas and their community-based co-managers within this area, I can envision the creation of a protected aquatic corridor throughout this reach. However, this incredible turtle species is under serious threat not from habitat loss, but from over harvesting because it is a major delicacy during the holidays, particularly around Easter. One of my first priorities is to meet with as many Hicatee fishers as I can, get to know them personally, and ask them for ideas as to how we can work together to save this species, a cultural icon, from extinction, and solicit their help in this important mission. We cannot do it without them.
2) You have had an extensive career in wildlife conservation. What achievement are you most proud of?
I have been working in conservation, within many different arenas, for about 47 years now, fought many battles along the way, and actually won a few. But I would have to say that my greatest impact has been that of a teacher at the University of Belize, Galen University, and hundreds of international and Belizean student field courses over the past 30 years. I have been able to see many of my Belizean students continue to build their careers in government environmental agencies, NGOs and CBOs, and educational institutions, continuing the never-ending work of conservation, research, and community engagement. Quite a few of my international students have returned to Belize, working on thesis and dissertation projects, volunteering with conservation efforts, starting wildlife rehabilitation centers, and contributing to educational outreach. These are the young people who carry the mission forward.
3) Tell us about your most memorable, exciting, or humorous experience from the field?
Over the decades I have logged in at least a couple of thousand river miles chocked full of exciting experiences, helicopter drops into the upper reaches of rivers, escaping plunge pools, being swept up in flash floods, miles of snorkeling surveys, meeting many magnificent creatures face to face (manatees, crocodiles, jaguars, otters, tapirs, the occasional Central American River Turtle, not to forget the myriad of tiny creatures often overlooked by many but are just as impressive in their own right), and the camps and campfire stories shared among river companions that now number into multiple hundreds. With each float I see something different and learn something new about the river, lagoon, or wetland. Often the most memorable is the journey I’ve just taken and the most exciting is the one I am about to embark upon. It has been a wonderful career and I hope to keep “working” for many years to come.
4) Having grown up in the United States and now living in Belize, how do the overall attitudes toward conservation compare?
Conservation in the United States, at least in much of my experience, often involved dealing with corporations, large government agencies, big conservation organizations, engineers, and lawyers. Belize is a small country with a population of around 400,000 people. These same groups are here, but they are smaller and more personal, people I have often known for years. And many of the citizens themselves are usually vocal and involved, very often with relatives on both sides of an issue. Many times the people I deal with I know by reputation as they know me, often through their own family members, many of them being former students, co-workers, and friends, some working for the government, others working for a company or an NGO.
Things are changing however. Big corporations are moving in and buying up large areas of Belize, winning favors from key government officials, and are able to push people and conservation organizations to the side. Currently we are facing off a multi-billion-dollar aggregate corporation focused on mining coastal limestone hills and send crushed stone across the largest Hawksbill Sea Turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata) nesting beach in the western Caribbean on conveyer bridges to fill the hulls of freighters bound for markets in the southeastern US with roadbed fill. Often the only chance we have against such powerful corporations is the international support we can acquire, and right now we are reaching out for help.
5) Tell us about your first memory of a turtle and your most memorable one since.
As a farm boy growing up on a 650-acre cattle ranch in central Mississippi, my focus was always drawn to the woods, creeks, ponds, and lakes and the box turtles, sliders, softshells, and snapping turtles among the many creatures I was lucky to grow up with. But one of my fondest memories was visiting my cousins who lived on a farm in the south central part of the state, which always required a trip into the backwoods along a wide stream to the “Gopher Hole.” We would carry cobs of dried corn and shell it in piles around the mouth of the hole and then we would pound the ground with our fists, keeping up a steady rhythm, sometimes for a good half hour, until a large Gopher Tortoise (Gopherus polyphemus) came limbering out of its den to visit with us and eat the corn we offered.
6) What advice would you give to anyone who wants to get involved in conservation?
Conservation is grounded in the sciences of biology, hydrology, geochemistry, climatology, and ecology, all of which are very important areas of contribution, guiding our strategies, directions, and actions to protect threatened species and the ecosystems sustaining them. But more than anything else, conservation is a people science. With all of our advanced learning and tools that help us understand the complexities and interconnections of Earth’s ecosystem, ultimately we lack the depth of knowledge and capacity to manage our natural environments. Our only hope is to manage our collective behavior within our environments. Those young professionals entering the conservation field will be wise to develop their people skills, the ability to question and listen, learn from the people who spend lifetimes in places most conservationists only infrequently visit, to find common ground, include even the most outlying stakeholders in the never ending process of discovering and applying workable, even if compromising solutions, and to always engage our youth for without them there is no sustainability.
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