International Partner Spotlight: BFREE

We’re no strangers to turtles in need here at ZNE Field Conservation HQ, and this month’s International Partner Spotlight involves a tropical turtle that we’ve come to know well – the hicatee! Also known as the Central American river turtle, the hicatee is the only living member of an ancient turtle family that predates the Cretaceous extinction that doomed the dinosaurs. Unlike many of our semi-aquatic turtles, hicatees are fully aquatic freshwater turtles, spending nearly all their time swimming and rarely exiting the water even to bask. While hicatees do lay their eggs on land, their eggs are resilient to flooding (which is important in their tropical river homes) and can remain viable even after being totally submerged for days at a time. Hicatees can grow to be quite large, up to two feet long and weighing almost fifty pounds, but they are gentle giants subsisting entirely on a diet of aquatic vegetation. 

A hicatee investigates its underwater surroundings. Photo credit: Matěj Baťha, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Such large hicatees are seldom seen in the rivers of Central America these days. Although they can be found from southern Mexico to the Guatemala-Honduras border, these turtles are becoming rarer across that range, and their true population bastion is in Belize. Even there, studies have shown that hicatee numbers are consistently declining. Hicatees have been harvested for their shells and as a food source for thousands of years, but the consumption of these slow-breeding reptiles has risen to levels that are not sustainable. Enter BFREE – the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education, a non-profit headquartered in the US that aims to bring US scientists and Belizean activists together to help save the hicatees. 

The BFREE field station headquarters.

BFREE started their hicatee program with just a few hicatee turtles confiscated from illegal poachers in 2014, and from that first group of turtles has now been able to breed several hundred turtles and start releasing them back to the wild. BFREE also works to promote awareness and conservation consciousness around the hicatee’s plight. Their efforts have produced hicatee t-shirts, stickers, school curriculum materials, a “Herbert the Hicatee” children’s book, and a catchy viral video song, “Mr. Hicatee.

Zoo New England has partnered with BFREE to bring our resources and turtle conservation experience to the table, along with other international partners such as the Turtle Survival Alliance. ZNE has provided BFREE with $30,000 to support their conservation efforts, and our field conservation staff are planning to visit Belize soon to assist with the health assessments and field work. Before the pandemic, Field Conservation Program Manager Emilie Wilder visited the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center to lend a hand – check out the photos below!

Want to hear more about our ongoing work with hicatees? Be sure to register for ZNE’s Cocktails for Conservation this January, when native Belizean and BFREE’s Wildlife Fellow Jonathan Dubon and Hicatee Conservation & Research Center Manager Tom Pop will present on the future of hicatees in Belize and the results of our conservation efforts so far. Check out this video featuring Jonathan and the hicatees for a sneak preview!