Central American River Turtle Program off to a good start in Belize

by Rick Hudson on April 16, 2010

The TSA's goal to create a sustainable conservation program for one of the world's most heavily exploited turtles, Dermatemys mawii, finally saw some progress recently with the arrival of Dr. Thomas Rainwater in Belize.  With funding from the Turtle Conservation Fund (TCF) and the Mohammed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Dr. Rainwater and Tom Pop - a long-time Belize employee of the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) - are launching a two-month survey of all major Dermatemys rivers in Belize. 

 This is essentially a repeat of Don Moll's mid-1980's surveys and will give us a good reference for what is happening to these populations.  We are anticipating serious declines due to heavy hunting pressures, as Dermatemysor ‚Äúhickatee‚Äù meat is regularly offered in many Belizean restaurants.

Elsewhere throughout their range, Dermatemys has experienced catastrophic declines, especially in southern Mexico.  Based on the results of this survey, the TSA expects to launch a pilot captive breeding program with the goal of defining what is required to manage this species in captivity.  In partnership with BFREE, the TSA envisions building a series of ponds with biological filtration - hopefully growing turtle food plants in the filtration ponds -where we can conduct breeding trials to see what works.  Questions to be answered include where they lay eggs, and what triggers egg laying, and optimal stocking densities.  The ultimate goal is to develop a farming system that can be taken up at the community level, thereby taking pressures off of wild populations AND providing stock to restore depleted wild populations.

The following is the first installment describing Dr. Rainwater's arrival in Belize; stay tuned for future news.

I arrived in Belize Monday (4/12), picked up the car and headed straight to Belize City to the Fisheries Dept.  The permits were ready and I turned around and headed up to Lamanai (New River Lagoon) to get the flat-back canoe. Stopped in Orange Walk on the way and bought a cell phone. 
Tuesday morning (4/13), we mounted the canoe on the roof of the vehicle (foam pads seem to be working well) and I headed back to Belize City.  Stopped and picked up 4 gallons of white gas for Tom's stove (all they had).  Drove on to Belmopan and visited with Marcelo Windsor and Andre Lopez at the Forestry Department. Then, I went over to the Lands Department, to get some additional topo maps. They were able to provide just about everything we needed. Headed back to Richard Foster's place and met up with Bruce to pick up his 3.3 hp outboard to go with the canoe.  Unfortunately, his motor needed a small part.  We raced back to Belize City, and got to the store about 1650 hr, just before closing.  But, they didn't have the part so Bruce ordered it (we tried calling ahead, but the line was busy the whole time).
Wednesday morning (4/14), Richard Foster offered to rent us his motor.  However, Bruce and I took it over to Bruce's to start it up, and it ended up also needing a part.  So, I just headed on to BFREE and arrived yesterday afternoon.  Tom Pop met me as I crossed the river.  I think he will be an excellent person to work with.  
Today (4/15) we are going to the American Crocodile Education Sanctuary (ACES) on the Rio Grande.  The owners (Vince and Cherie) are gone but will return tomorrow. However, they have prepared a room for us, so we will organize our gear and prepare to start the surveys either tonight or tomorrow.  We will also go today and meet with Nick Wicks.  He will hopefully be able to help us coordinate with others down south (and elsewhere) that want to help us.  I'm hoping we can make ACES our base camp while down south (Cherie's suggestion).  
I will send other updates as things progress.
Hope all is well with you,