The central American river turtle, also known as the Hickatee, is a species that is critically endangered according to the IUCN red list. Their population trend is decreasing in the wild, making them of extreme concern for conservation. Historically this turtle is the only surviving species of a family of turtles which used to be wide spread. However, now this turtle is restricted to parts of Central America, Southern Mexico and Guatemala. It is a large freshwater turtle that is nocturnal highly aquatic and completely herbivorous feeding only on plant matter. Unfortunately due to its large size it has been hunted in its range and over exploited for centuries. This over exploitation has led to the critically endangered status of this turtle and reduced its populations to the point where it is likely that they may become extinct.
Habitat and Reproduction
These turtles tend to live in deep rivers and lakes and a travel using areas that are flooded during the wet season. As the floodwaters recede they will occasionally become trapped in small ponds and lakes until the next wet season occurs and floods allow them to travel back to the deeper rivers. Not much is known about the reproduction of these turtles. Females of the species like to nest at the peak of the wet season and can lay up to a for clutches of eggs. Not much is known about the nesting and reproduction of the species due to the low numbers of populations, how fragmented they are in Central America, and the lack of research done on them. It is known that the nests are often laid below high water points and often flood for weeks, but this flooding of the nest is not shown t cause any kind of negative impacts on the survival of the hatchlings.
Hunting and over exploitation
The biggest threat to these aquatic turtles is over hunting of mature turtles and their eggs. This turtle has been hunted since the time of the Mayans and Hickatee with rice is a traditional meal that is widely eaten, especially in Belize, to this day. It is relatively easy to hunt the hickatee since it is inactive during the day time and when sold at market can bring in much profit. There are laws in place that the hunting of the turtles to be illegal in Central America since 1975, but there is a lack of enforcement which leads to the over exploitation of what populations are left.
Research and conservation
There has been some research done on these turtles, but not much is known about them. They have not had a formal population assessment throughout their range in years, and studies are extremyl difficult to perform due to lack of funding and since they have a highly fragmented population. There is a need for sites and areas to be protected to protect these turtles resources and habitat. Protection to is needed for their food sources and the water quality of the homes that these turtles live in. Management of the areas where the Hickatee is found, as well as restoration of some natural processes in highly developed areas. Species management and recovery plans are heavily needed in order to direct conservation efforts including species reintroduction where they have been exploited and conservation in the form of captive breeding and head starting. Other efforts for education include formal classroom education, training and awareness, and communications in the community where these turtles are being hunted and exploited. Encouragement for compliance and enforcement of laws to protect this animal is also heavily needed. It is also suggested that further research be done on the actual population size distribution and trends within those populations how often these turtles are harvested what they are used for and how they contribute to the livelihood of locals who are harvesting them as well as general population trends throughout their range.
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