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A Hicatee Happy Story!

The  Central American river turtle, Dermatemys mawii or “Hicatee,” as we all call this beautiful turtle,  is a species which is critically endangered. Only found in river basins of Belize, Mexico and the  Honduras/ Guatemalan southern reaches, few remain. This is a gentle and trusting turtle; totally aquatic too. The hicatee only comes out of its river habitat to lay eggs. The passive personality of the hicatee has made this turtle an easy capture.

These turtles have been hunted and eaten for far too long, and this has resulted in conservation red flags going up. Yes, unless protection for the hicatee is provided, we may very well lose this turtle from our Belizean rivers. However, efforts have been made to try and save this rare species in Belize.  Belize Foundation for Environmental Education and Research, BFREE, has undertaken a captive breeding program and they have bred! Safe and sound in the Bladen Nature Reserve, the goal is to release the youngsters in areas where they have been sorely depleted. This conservation strategy would contribute to taking pressure off of remaining hicatee turtles. Educating the public about the scarcity of these turtles is essential. Getting to know and appreciate the unique profile of the hicatee will certainly lead to people wanting to protect these special turtles for the future.

One hicatee had a very lucky day recently when he met up with tour guide David Hernandez. Mr. Hernandez was fishing along a portion of the Belize river. Instead of catching a fish, to his surprise, up came a hicatee turtle! There were other fishermen around.  David Hernandez was fearful that if he put the slightly shaken hicatee straight back into the river the turtle would be captured and become someone’s dinner. So, he brought the turtle to The Belize Zoo.

In our fish pond live two hicatee turtles and they now have a friend. We have named our new hicatee “Hernandez,” in honour of his caring friend, David Hernandez.  And we believe that Hernandez is a male hicatee. The male of the species has yellowish-orange lines on the side of his face. Hernandez has this attractive physical male trait. We look forward to establishing a stronger education program about the hicatee turtle here at The Belize Zoo. Hopefully, this will lead to a greater awareness about our unique hicatees, and assist their “Future in the Wild.”

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