Happy Hicatee Awareness Month!

This October, we’re celebrating the 6th annual Hicatee Awareness Month. You might well be asking, “What is ‘hicatee’ and why do I need to be aware of it?” Hicatee is the local Belizean name for the Central American river turtle (Dermatemys mawaii), a critically endangered turtle that is now the sole surviving species in a once-widespread family of turtles. The Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) – the first organization in the world to successfully captive-breed and reintroduce hicatee to the wild – has designated October as a month to raise awareness for Hicatee, both in Belize and around the world.

Zoo New England has been supporting BFREE’s Hicatee conservation project since 2019, and we’re helping them get the word out about this unique and elusive creature. Hicatees are completely aquatic turtles, not even coming up on land to bask. This makes them challenging to see, though practiced local hunters are adept at diving for them during the dry season when the turtles are concentrated in smaller areas which is the leading cause of their decline.

A man in a green shirt, blue jeans, and a beige cap leans over the edge of a white boat, holding a young turtle just above the water's surface in both hands,
Releasing a headstarted juvenile hicatee back into the wild.

It was once thought that breeding these turtles was impractical, but BFREE established a captive-rearing facility in 2014 and has now successfully released over 400 captive-born hicatees back into the wild. Together with researchers at Missouri State University, they are monitoring the turtles post-release, and also working with local communities to help shift attitudes about the hicatee. Hicatee are considered a delicacy and are consumed by many Belizeans during Lent or other special holidays. By raising awareness about the existing laws as well as advocating for stricter protections, BFREE hopes to have hicatee designated the “National Reptile” of Belize.

A crowd of smiling Belizean adults and children, including BFREE staff in green shirts, stand together on a sunny day with a wetland in the background. Two volunteers hold a homemade white banner with blue letters that reads, "Save the Hicatee"
BFREE staff and local supporters with a homemade “Save the Hicatee” banner.

Zoo New England was inspired by BFREE’s work, noting some of the parallels between our respective turtle conservation projects. They were a perfect fit for our supported international conservation projects, administered by the zoo’s Conservation Committee.

Our Conservation Committee recently voted to triple our support of BFREE from $10,000 to $30,000 USD annually, which will help BFREE improve the facilities at the research and captive-rearing center, track more turtles after they are released back into the wild, and hire a second Hicatee Conservation Fellow.  The Fellows program is a two-year training opportunity for young Belizeans to participate in and learn about wildlife conservation, gain leadership and professional skills, and build partnerships between emerging Belizean leaders, BFREE, and its many conservation partners. This summer, ZNE sponsored  BFREE wildlife fellow Jonathan Dubon and the hicatee research station manager Tom Pop to visit the US. They presented on their hicatee work at the zoo, and worked alongside our field conservation staff for a week learning all about Massachusetts turtles!

We hope you’ll mark your calendars for October 17th, Belize’s National Hicatee Day, and check out this entertaining video about Hicatees in Belize.