Turtles Added to Assurance Colony in Belize

by Howard Goldstein 

The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) is a captive breeding and research facility for the critically endangered Central American River Turtle Dermatemys mawii, locally known as the Hicatee. It is part of the joint TSA and Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) Hicatee conservation program, and located on the grounds of BFREE in southern Belize. *

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In a huge boost to the joint TSA/BFREE campaign to establish a viable captive bred assurance colony of the critically endangered Hicatee (Dermatemys mawii), 19 new adult females were added to the HCRC in June 2016.

This comes on the heels of another major HCRC success, as four new hatchlings emerged alive and healthy in May 2016 from a clutch of ten eggs laid in December 2015 at the Center. Seven of these eggs were deemed viable, with three kept at HCRC while four were transferred to the residence of award winning wildlife filmmakers Carol and Richard Foster in Belmopan. The Fosters have been contracted by TSA and BFREE to make a short film highlighting the plight of the Hicatee and advocating conservation, and have captured excellent footage of the hatching event. While the HCRC eggs are still incubating at ambient temperatures, the four eggs at the Fosters' had been incubated at constant 29 degrees Celsius in the hopes of producing females, and have raised interest by hatching at 149 days: 44 days sooner than last years' clutch that hatched at 193 days of incubation at ambient temperatures. Last year's successful breeding, the first at the HRCR, produced seven hatchlings, all of which are alive and growing rapidly. 

The original founder population consisted of 22 animals, all but three of which are either males or animals still too small to sex. Although breeding has already occurred and eggs hatched in 2015 and 2016, the skewed sex ratio of adults has made the need for more females clear.

The need was answered on 07 June 2016, when the Belize Fisheries Department confiscated 16 Hicatees in the Belize River Valley based on an anonymous tip. Eight of the original 22 founder animals at the HCRC were acquired through Fisheries'confiscations in 2014, after HCRC members had heard of the confiscations on Belize radio and contacted the Fisheries Department. This time, Fisheries contacted HCRC first, inquiring about sending the animals to the captive breeding program.

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As the HCRC was suffering only from a shortage of females, the four males were released back into the wild, but mature females with carapace lengths of 38 cm or greater were given new homes at BFREE and new opportunities to boost the captive bred population of their critically endangered species. Vivian Belisle-Ramanarace of Fisheries initially turned over the females to the Fosters in the midst of their Hicatee movie, until BFREE staff members Elmer Tzalam and Thomas Pop (HCRC Manager) traveled to Belmopan to collect them on 10 June. A few additional animals that had been serendipitously collected for the breeding program brought the grand total to 19 new females.

Unfortunately, the exact collection site(s) for the 16 confiscated animals remains unknown. Although BFREE director Jacob Marlin requested the GPS coordinates from the capture sites, the culprits have refused to disclose the locations to Belize Fisheries.

With the breeding colony now 22 females strong, there are high expectations for many more nests and hatchlings within the coming years. It could not have come at a more crucial time; the critically endangered Hicatee is fighting an uphill battle against overharvest stemming from culturally ingrained culinary preferences. The Hicatee was once extremely abundant within its small natural geographic range of southern Mexico, Belize, and northern Guatemala. Almost like aquatic bison, huge densities of these creatures migrated seasonally through rivers, sloughs, and even estuaries as (likely) keystone aquatic herbivores. Also like bison, which once existed in numbers that seemed inexhaustible, they have in recent decades become increasingly scarce animals. The Hicatee has been wiped out of most of its Mexican range, its status in Guatemala is uncertain, and its stronghold, Belize, has in the past decade seen many once abundant populations extirpated or reduced to fractions of former numbers.

With the need to both protect wild populations and establish viable captive breeding colonies, the Belize Fisheries' confiscation of these live Hicatee for the HCRC and arrest of the poachers represent the double pronged application of law enforcement and captive management required to conserve D. mawii.