Hicatee Conservation Initiative

To discover the natural history of Central American river turtles in Belize


The Central American river turtle (Dermatemys mawii), also known locally as "hicatee" or "tortuga blanca", has declined throughout its native range of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. They are extremely rare in Mexico and Guatemala, but there are a few scattered stable populations left in Belize. It is listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN and it is an Appendix 2 species under CITES. Although there are existing regulations in Belize for the harvest and possession of this species, there is little enforcement of these laws throughout its range. Overharvesting and illegal poaching are the main contributing factors for its current status. With a mean generation time estimated to be between 15 and 20 years, poachers can decimate an entire waterway in just a few nights.


Little is known about the natural history of this iconic turtle of Central America. As a result, it is difficult to formulate effective laws to allow sustainable harvesting and protect important habitat. Lack of knowledge of dietary, life history and crucial habitat requirements may impede successful captive propagation attempts. Through a long-term mark–recapture and radio-telemetry programme, our collaborative group hopes to shed light on some of these knowledge gaps.


Engaging the local communities and involving them in our efforts hopes to build a better understanding of the plight of the hicatee. Through engaging children in the classrooms and creating educational brochures for distribution in the local villages, we are building a sense of local pride and ownership of this unique species. We are seeking to support the Forest Department of Belize to gain increased surveillance for poaching activities that are occurring unchecked in protected waterways.


An artificial pond near our study area, with plentiful food plants known to be consumed by the species based on field observations, has been altered to house a group of hicatee in an effort to form a captive assurance colony. These specimens have also formed our pilot radio-telemetry group to determine ideal detection times for this fully aquatic species.


Through all these measures we hope to help preserve this unique turtle and aid in its recovery to its former ranges. Cooperation between all invested agencies and organisations in Belize will be needed to ensure its survival and we are hoping to host a series of working group meetings at our study location to foster this collaboration.


WAZA Conservation Project 13008 is implemented and funded by Zoo Miami, with additional support provided by Jacksonville Zoo. Other stakeholders involved in the project include the Lamanai Field Research Center, University of Florida and Lamanai Outpost Lodge.


Visit www.miamimetrozoo.com.


> to project overview
  • Hicatee_1
  • Hicatee_2
  • Central American River Turtle Conservation

    Central American River Turtle Conservation

    (1) - (3) © Dustin Smith/Zoo Miami