Central American River Turtle or 'Hicatee'

Dermatemys mawii


Photos: Juvenile Hicatees hatched at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at BFREE in Belize

Regarded as one of the Top 25 most endangered turtles in the world, the Central American River Turtle, or ‘Hicatee’ as it’s locally known, is at great risk of extinction – mainly due to the unsustainable harvest of its meat by local communities throughout its range in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Populations have been wiped out from many areas of Mexico and Guatemala, and the species’ last remaining stronghold is in Belize. However, even in Belize, the species has been in rapid decline and can no longer be found in many areas where it was once common just a few years earlier. The Hicatee is an important species, not only because of its ecological role within its environment, but also because it is truly a living fossil - the only surviving species of an ancient lineage of turtles that dates back more than 65 million years to the Cretaceous!

In 2010, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) along with the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) held a conservation workshop to develop conservation strategies to protect this species. From this workshop, the Hicatee Conservation Network was born, a coalition of organizations and agencies whose primary focus is to protect the Hicatee through education and outreach, legislation and enforcement, and scientific research.

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens (JZG) currently maintains the only three individuals of this species in the United States and is committed to its protection and conservation in the wild. In the spring of 2016, JZG sponsored a second Hicatee conservation workshop in Belize which brought together all organizations and individuals involved with the conservation and research of this species to review the status of the Hicatee in the wild, evaluate current conservation efforts, and develop further strategies for its protection. JZG is currently strengthening its conservation support by assisting with the development of a new, interactive educational display for the Hicatee at the Belize Zoo, as well as the production of a wildlife documentary on the plight of the Hicatee that will be shown in schools throughout Belize. Additionally, studies on the behavior and reproduction of the species at JZG are contributing valuable scientific information to what is currently known about this unique and important species.