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Hicatee Research & Conservation

Zoo New England's Field Conservation Department plays an active role in turtle conservation here in New England, and through this partnership, we’re now bringing that expertise and commitment to Belize.

 The critically endangered hicatee, or Central American river turtle (Dermatemys mawii), is among the world’s 25 most endangered turtle species. They are found in Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, but recent status assessments suggest that their numbers have plummeted. Overexploitation appears to be the primary cause for the decline of this species throughout their native range. Hicatees are a traditional food item in Central America, and despite laws protecting them, they are still being captured at unsustainable rates.

In an effort to bolster this diminishing species’ numbers, the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) established the Hicatee Research and Conservation Center at their field station in Belize. To date, the center is the world’s only ex-situ captive breeding facility for this endangered species, and it has fostered a now rapidly growing population. By raising awareness and advocating for stricter protections, BFREE hopes to have hicatee designated the “National Reptile” of Belize.

Zoo New England has supported BFREE’s Hicatee Conservation Project since 2019. Our Field Conservation Department plays an active role in turtle conservation here in New England, and through this partnership, we’re now bringing that expertise and commitment to Belize. We support BFREE with expertise in turtle veterinary medicine and captive husbandry, as well as in establishing and monitoring turtle reintroduction and population augmentation programs in the field.

We also support BFREE's Fellows program, 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. 

Turtle Conservation in New England

From conservation land, to the laboratory, to your own backyard—we’re working to save rare and threatened turtle species right here in New England through the following programs:

Blanding's Turtles

Zoo New England’s Field Conservation Department, in collaboration with the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and a number of local agencies and organizations, is monitoring and helping to protect four different Blanding’s turtle populations around the state. Working with local volunteers and our project partners, we radio-track turtles, protect their nests, and, where possible, restore or enhance critical wetland and nesting habitat.

Spotted Turtles

We’re working to conserve the last remaining populations of the locally rare spotted turtle in Boston. These small turtles are hanging on in two urban watersheds: at Stony Brook and Fowl Meadow Reservations.

Wood Turtles

Zoo New England’s Field Conservation Department​ has been monitoring wood turtles (Glyptemys insculpta) since 2012 at a wetland just east of Hanscom Airfield, in Concord, MA. To our knowledge, this is the last remaining wood turtle population in Concord, a town where this species was known to be relatively common in the past. In fact, the wood turtle was once the most common freshwater turtle in eastern Massachusetts. Now wood turtles are listed as a species of Special Concern in Massachusetts and listed as endangered on the IUCN redlist.

Hatchling and Turtle Conservation through Headstarting (HATCH)

Hatchling and Turtle Conservation through Headstarting (HATCH) is Zoo New England's conservation-based education program focused on conservation and support of local turtle species including Blanding’s, wood, spotted and snapping turtles. Through the program, students and teachers from participating schools have the opportunity to actively and significantly participate in a real-world rare species conservation program by raising hatchling turtles to greatly increase their chances of survival in the wild.

Turtle Detection Dog

Koda, the Zoo’s “Turtle Dog,” is being trained to assist staff in locating turtles in their native habitat as part of vital conservation work to protect and bolster regionally threatened populations of turtles, particularly the locally rare eastern box turtle.​