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Central American River Turtle



Please help look for hicatees


Women cleaning hicatees for sale photo taken by staff

Did you enjoy a tasty and traditional Easter meal of hicatee this year? If so, it may have been your last as this Critically Endangered species was listed as one of the Top 25 Turtles on Death Row by the Turtle Conservation Fund over 7 years ago. To be classified as Critically Endangered, the species must face an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future. In terms of biological diversity, the Dermatemys mawii (hicatee) is of very high importance; it is the single living genus and species in this family, which dates back to the Eocene.  

Preparing a female hicatee for sale at a market photo taken by staff

The main threat to the hicatee is over  hunting. Hunting regulations do apply in Belize,and include a closed season (the month of May), a take limit (maximum 3 per individual and 5 per vehicle), and limits on the size of females that can be killed. In addition, Belize Fisheries regulations state that no person shall buy or sell any hicatee turtle, however, for just one hour on one random day at the fish market in Belize City, I witnessed 4 hicatees being offered for sale. Obviously, national legislation to protect the hicatee turtle in Belize has been ineffective, wether due to lack of consistent enforcement or lack of general knowledge of, and compliance with, regulations.   

For adequate and realistic conservation measures to be adopted and enforced by the Government of Belize and the managers of the protected areas, there must be a drastic change in awareness in both governmental agencies and the public at large. This can only be brought about through the presentation of a comprehensive and accurate report on the current status of hicatee populations nationally, the threats impacting them, the outcome of current trends, and viable strategies to safeguard the species and critical habitat for future generations.   

Dermatemys mawii photo by Thomas Rainwater


There is a strong concern by conservationists, nationally and internationally about the sharp decline of the hicatee. From April-June of 2010, surveys were conducted throughout Belize by international reptile expert Thomas Rainwater (who took the accompanying photo), to assess the current hicatee population. Plans are underway to conduct a workshop to draft a National Conservation Action Strategy for the hicatee, with anticipated completion by the fall of 2010. Information on the outcome of these activities will be forthcoming.   


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Toledo villagers beg for BDF

The following story is an extract from: Amandala
Posted: 18/06/2010 – 09:49 AM
Author: Adele Ramos –

The chairman of the village of San Jose and villagers of San Jose and Na Lum Cah, Toledo, are calling on the Government of Belize to increase Belize Defence Force (BDF) presence in the area, after reports that Guatemalan xatéros are operating very close to their village, and have most recently been stealing their horses.

Even though a military operation was dispatched to the area at the start of the week, according to an official source, Guatemalan xatéros, villagers say, were sighted in the area as recent as last night, Wednesday.

The report is furthermore linked to the sighting of an illegal clearing inside the Columbia River Forest Reserve – a magnet to Guatemalan xatéros, loggers and poachers who frequent the area to illegally extract natural resources. Eight men were recently sighted together in the area.

Clearly, the most recent developments solidify security concerns by villagers in the area, not too far from the reserve, whose property have allegedly been pillaged at night by persons they believe to be illegal xatéros.

Wil Maheia, activist and leader of the People’s National Party, reported to Amandala that even though the rains prevented him and his companions from going deep into the Columbia River Forest Reserve, they were able to speak with frustrated villagers from San Jose, Toledo, who confirmed rustling of horses and a donkey from the area.

“We spoke to the chairman Mr. Peck who mentioned that he would like to see a more permanent presence of the BDF in the area, because it is only when things like this happen that they get a reaction from the military,” Maheia conveyed. “‘If Amandala did not print that article, probably no movement would have taken place,’ he said.”

Emitero Sho, villager of Na Lum Cah, echoed that frustration, complaining that the Guatemalans stole his donkey and some horses from other villagers. When they went to report the matter to the Punta Gorda police, 30 miles away from where they live, villagers said, the PG police sent them to file a report at the San Antonio Police Station, several miles inland. The villager said that he did not have the money to go to another station to file the report and so decided to abandon those attempts. Despite a complaint filed to the Ministry of Defence, the villager said, no one has gone to locate them to get any statements from them.

Maheia narrated: “When we arrived in the village, we saw some military personnel. We went to ask them if they had gone into the Colombia Forest to investigate the reports of Guatemalan squatters and that of the stealing of horses. Lt. B. Robinson said that he cannot make a comment on their visit in the area and that all questions should be directed to Officer [Ganney] Dortch at Price Barracks [Ladyville]. Rafael Sho, a villager of San Jose, said that he had gone into the forest and saw xatéros extracting the xaté and that he would like to see the presence of the BDF.

“He told us that as of now, the BDF are patrolling, but it is limited and the xatéros are out there in full force. We also got a report that last night, the Guatemalans were back in the village of Na Lum Cah and tried to steal more horses, but when the horse made a noise, the owners were awakened and the Guatemalans ran away. Almost every villager we spoke to asked that there should be more military presence in the area.”

Military Liaison Officer, Lieutenant Victor Briceño, reported to Amandala Thursday that the BDF is currently out on a mission in the area to find out the facts on the ground. Briceño said that they have received the complaint at their ministry that Guatemalans have rustled horses in the area and cleared out a portion of the Columbia River Forest Reserve.

The xatéros used to bring their own horses, he recollected, claiming the horse rustling has not happened in that area for a while.

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Bladen Nature Reserve Field Trip for Students

BNR Management Zones

The Bladen Nature Reserve is one of the most pristine areas and has the highest level of protection in Belize. Ya’axché organized field trips for primary school students from buffering communities and also for high school students, but it was not a regular field trip, it was to educate young students about the Bladen Nature Reserve.

By law, the Bladen Nature Reserve allows only two things to happen inside its boundaries which are research and education. The reserve is divided into two zones, a natural environment zone and a preservation zone. In the natural environment zone only research and education may occur but in the preservation zone no one is regularly permitted to engage in any activity. The Bladen Nature Reserve is a no take protected area.

The Bladen River is the river that runs north-easterly through the nature reserve with is also classified as the mother of the Monkey River Watershed which feeds into nearby rivers and the Port Honduras Marine Reserve.  

On March 30th 2010 rangers along with teachers from Medina Bank, Indian Creek, and Golden Stream primary schools and Ya’axché volunteers took 49 students and on March 31st 52 students into the nature reserve. Not only were students given the opportunity to explore, but the trip also provided an opportunity for the rangers to practice their strategies of communication, as rangers are look at by Ya’axché as local teachers and ambassadors of Ya’axché who engage in hands-on environmental education. The ranger had open discussions with the children to better understand the roles that rangers play to manage such a huge area with rich biodiversity.

Through this practical adventure, the elementary students were able to observe the pristine and invaluable resources of the nature reserve. This activity directly involved the future decision makers of the three buffer communities, hopefully influencing their relationship with managing the communities natural resources sustainably.

Ya'axche ranger Explaining the importance of pristine rivers

Various situations encountered within the nature reserve were used as “teachable moments” to relate to problems posed to it. The rustic road entrance was used to illustrate the likely hood of impacts and threats posed not only by the surrounding communities but by anyone since it is accessible.  The Pine Savannah and the boundary line was used to discuss prescribed burning to prevent the spread of wild fires from Pine Savannahs. Rangers also talked about nutrient cycles, forest structure, pollution and littering, erosion control, seed dispersion, healthy water systems and the importance of wildlife.

Students were brought to the Blue Pool to show the importance and beauty of pristine waters which affect reefs because of their interconnectivity.

Through these field trips Ya’axché focused on educating the teachers and the future decision makers – students, about the value of effectively managed community natural resources. By spending time within the most pristinely conserved area of the Toledo District, the students and educators were able to observe the interconnectedness between their use of resources outside the nature reserve and what happens within Bladen Nature Reserve.

On April 1st 2010 26 high school students attended the field trip, with a Ya’axché  ranger and Education Outreach Officer. Ya’axché hopes to enable the students to become stewards of conservation in their communities, and give them training and skills they need to continue on in the path of environmental education.

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Fire Training for Ya’axché Rangers and Southern Belize Fire Working Group

Ya'axche Ranger at Fire Training

On February 27th and 28th 2010 Ya’axché rangers and other members of the Southern Belize Fire Working Group benefited from a fire management training held at Golden Stream Field Centre, Bladen Nature Reserve and Payne’s Creek National Park. The training was facilitated by experts with extensive experience in fire management: TIDE’s Mario Muschamp and Mr. Oswaldo Sabido. The training focused on ecological concepts, ecosystems, fire classification, fire hazards and management.

On the first day participants were given theoretical training on the application of fire and fire management. Rangers understood the differences between fire influenced, fire dependent and fire independent ecosystems and which are fire dependent savannah and fire influenced broadleaf forest. They were also introduced to the different components of a fire regime for each of these ecosystems and the roles that humans play in influencing these regimes. The use of prescribed fire in protected natural areas, buffer zones and forest reserves was justified by describing the different types of burns, history of fire use, and the appropriate management response in each case.

Lessons were given to understand the basic concepts to understanding and defining fire, identifying the parts of the fire triangle and its role in combustion, understanding the four heat transfer mechanisms and how they influence fire behaviour and fire effects. Not only were they taught to understand but also to be able to explain the components of a wild-land fire, flame characteristics, and the concepts of rate of speed, intensity and total heat release.

Rangers also learned how principal elements of weather determine fire behaviour. Integral to this was the effect of cold fronts, the importance of atmospheric stability to fire behaviour and smoke dispersal during and after prescribed burns. Fire weather knowledge in planning and implementation of prescribed burns which is highly effective was passed on to the participants.

Not only were participants understanding the concepts and importance of fires but also taught fire breaks and ignition techniques to control fire. Rangers were able to differentiate between “soft” and “hard” lines, understand the principles of control line placement, width and accessibility.

Fire in the Fields

Ignition patterns and when and how they are used to produce desired fire effects before identifying ignition devices which can cause wildfires were discussed. Fuel characteristics and types and help to understand the concept of fuel size and dead fuel moisture time lag, real examples were used.

They were also taught contingencies, safety, suppression tactics and mop-up. They learned defining and identifying contingencies such as natural and man-made barriers to fire spread and also identifying potential hazards and the measures which may be taken to mitigate those hazards and suppression tactics for escaped prescribed burns taking into consideration good safe practice that is required in the mop-up process and above all be sure about the level of mop-up needed after different kinds of burns in different conditions.

On day two, February 28th 2010, theory met reality when the team headed to Bladen Nature Reserve. The rangers were prepared with protective clothing and briefed upon initial activities also giving them a lesson on correct usage and safety issues of all the equipment that would be used for the activity.

The team chopped down highly flammable palmetto using machetes since the relative humidity was too high as a precaution. A blackline was placed between two parcels of savannah land when the time seemed suitable. The rangers applied all their skills learned from the previous day of theory classes, ensuring that the fire never escaped. This was accomplished by wetting the periphery using bladder bags and hoses. The blackline was a success, using a combination of theory with the trail and error of practical fire fighting under constant supervision.

The mop-up which consisted of patrolling the periphery raking and flapping and wetting any still burning material and knocking over standing trees which was classified, not safe was conducted at the last stage of the training.

This experience was very valuable and interesting but also this training helped the rangers better understand the use and management of fire especially in Pine Savannahs.

Ya’axché would like to thank Mario Mushchamp of TIDE and Oswaldo Sabido for generously devoting their time to build capacity for protected area management in Southern Belize, and Wildlife Without Borders (WWB) of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) for providing funds in order for this training to be accomplished.

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REA of Central River


Campbell's Rainforest Frog

In February 2010, an assessment team was sent to Central River to document ecological findings. Ya’axché is very grateful for the participation of Ya’axché volunteers, Forest Department, Columbia River Forest Reserve and Bladen Nature Reserve Committee and Belize Defence Force.

After two field trips to Central River led by Paul Walker and Melissa Medina we have completed a REA of Central River which is avaible on our website.  If you would like to read or download the document please visit

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CJ gives Ya’axche green light for judicial review of Toledo hydro permit

The following article is an extract form
Author: Adele Ramos
Date: 19/02/2010

On Wednesday afternoon Chief Justice Dr. Abdulai Conteh gave Ya’axche Conservation Trust (YCT), the co-manager of the Bladen Nature Reserve, permission for a judicial review of a decision by the Forest Department to issue a research permit to a hydro-development company to undertake preliminary studies inside the Bladen Nature Reserve and the Colombia River Forest Reserve.


YCT’s executive director Lisel Alamilla has contended that the permit is not really a research permit, since it was granted to a company scoping the area with an eye to pursuing further hydro development on the Rio Grande.


The company in question, Belize Hydroelectric Development & Management Company Limited (BHD), has an existing dam, the Hydro Maya dam, in the area.


Toledo villagers had complained to YCT back in July that workers of the hydro company had cleared portions of both the Colombia Forest Reserve and the Bladen Nature Reserve without having gotten the required approval, respectively from the Forestry Department and the Department of the Environment.

An official assessment by YCT and Government officials confirmed the reports and also led to the discovery of a helicopter landing site. This week YCT reported that there have been a total of four helicopter landing sites in the area.


The total damage, as assessed by YCT, is $125,000, which Alamilla informed would include charges for remediation works required to restore the damaged habitats.

Last October the Chief Forest Officer Wilber Sabido informed us that the Department was also fining the company $1,500, in addition to the $32,000 in damages.


In response to challenges by YCT, on Thursday, January 7, the Forest Department issued a cease and desist order to BHD.


Sabido told us Wednesday, while outside of court, that the order remains in effect. He said that the department had done an assessment over the weekend, and that report will be reviewed with all parties, including officials of his department, BHD and YCT. The cease and desist order remains in effect until then, so there is no need for a court injunction against BHD, Alamilla explained. 

YCT contends that granting the BHD a permit under the concession agreement, signed by Prime Minister Dean Barrow back in December 2008, amounts to a violation of the National Parks Systems Act, and is contrary to the intended purpose of a nature reserve.


In the substantive case, set to go before the court on May 6, YCT’s attorney Magali Marin is expected to argue that point, as well as ask for BHD to pay the $125,000 that YCT has assessed for damages within the protected area.


Broader issues may also be fleshed out, such as questions over the authority of the Chief Forest Officer to issue the research permit to BHD, the purpose of a nature reserve, and who is really responsible for administrating it.


The court case is against the Forest Department and the Attorney General of Belize; however, Dr. Conteh has asked that BHD, being an affected party, be invited to join the suit as an interested party.

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Battle in Bladen Going to Supreme COurt

The following article is an extract from
Date: 27th January 2010

There’s a battle brewing in the Bladen Nature Reserve in the Toledo District where its conservationists versus developers who are investigating the possibility of erecting a dam, reportedly on the Central River – which is a headwater source for many bodies of fresh water in the deep south.

And while the fight so far has been contained to Toledo, it is coming to Belize City – specifically to the Supreme Court. 7News has learned that the Yaxche Conservation Trust which co-manages the Bladen Nature reserve is in the process of filing a request for judicial review of a permit given to Belize Hydroelectric Development & Management Company Limited to conduct research in Bladen. The judicial review filing was finalized this evening and should be lodged by tomorrow. IT argues that the research permit government granted to the Hydroelectric Development & Management Company was in violation of the terms of a nature reserve – which only permits research based on ecology, not for development purposes.

Yaxche says it is only doing this to preserve its legal position – but whatever the case it is a clear shot across the Government’s bow – which issued the permit. But before the permit was issued the hydro company went into this core conservation area with no official permission and started research – which meant clearing areas, m making trials and marking trees and rocks. That’s illegal – and under pressure from Yaxche – the forestry Department fined the company thirty-two thousand dollars. But fine or not – sections of the communities connected to Bladen and the Central River are outraged and concerned.

Those sentiments were captured in a documentary commissioned by Yaxche. It is 30 minutes long and offers a compelling insight into the community based issues – and more than that serves up a classic gotcha moment of Area Rep Juan Coy. Here are those excerpts.

Zenovia Requena, Resident – San Pedro Colombia
“Me I travel night and day in this river and I want no dam in this river because we drink the water, we have nowhere else to drink water. We have nothing more but this river. All the villages them drink water from this river. It is over a thousand people that drink water from this river; Crico Jute, San Jose, Pueblo Viejo, Nah Lun Kan, and this Rio Blanco – all those people back of those villages drink from the river because the river has a lot of branches, a lot of veins which run to meet up with the other rivers and that is why this will mess up whole of the place and with this river they should do nothing, nothing at all because that will affect this river bad.”

“What will happen if the water level goes down?”

Zenovia Requena,
“It will get dry and where will we go and get water.”

“We are saying this concession agreement is directly under your jurisdiction, you are the Area Rep. of Toledo West. This concession agreement was signed by the Hon. Dean Barrow on December 5th 2008.”

Hon. Juan Coye, Toledo West Area Rep.
“With regards to the concession agreement, I don’t have any idea about that.”

“Do you have a copy of the document?”

Hon. Juan Coye,
“Where I saw a copy of the document was when Yaxche was doing a presentation at a public meeting at the school.”

“And so you are saying that you did not know anything about the concession agreement?”

Hon. Juan Coye,

“Were you consulted about the concession agreement, were you asked for your opinion?”

Hon. Juan Coye,
“Not at all. Let me say that the Prime Minister in his capacity has all authority; likewise the Minister of Natural Resources. It is true to the extent that it is my jurisdiction but these are people who have the final say.”

“A fact finding trip into the reserves was organized by a village committee of San Pedro Colombia in connection with Yaxche, the co-manager of Bladen Forest Reserve and the Belize Defense Force.”

“Basically it is an educational field trip that the committee has embarked on. Presently we are in the upper Esperanza River, we’ve gone up several kilometers from here heading up into the headwaters and encountered at least seven major waterfalls.

We found out from one of the persons that was actually guarding one of the developers’ camp that there is presently a number of about ten workers that are conducting the research work on the Esperanza River. As Mr. Cruz said we managed to get up to number 52 and obviously at that point we found that there was recent trafficking in terms of human footprints.”

Michael Cus,
“The human trafficking here is very high observed mainly through horsetracks in the area and the presence of human can clearly be seen due to the many trails within the jungle itself caused by xateros hunting for xatero leaves. Hunting I believe is very common in the area by the xateros. It is quite hard to say what type of animals are being hunted but I have seen feathers along the route and also expended cartridges, 20 gauge and what not expended shells along the road. I noticed during the entire route I didn’t see any major game animal such as wild peccary or deer or at least ocelot, I didn’t see anything or a little margot, no sign of wildlife. Last night we found a xateros camp with three xateros. Yesterday when we got to Bladen Nature Reserve we observed seven animals in the area, grazing on the helipad next to the camp where the developers actually are camping.”

A few points. First, you saw Juan Coy flatly deny any knowledge of the concessions agreement – well three weeks ago Housing Minister Michael Finnegan said on his Lik Road talk show that was simply not true – that Coy did know. Second, while the hydroelectric company has been fined $32,000, our information suggests that the fine has not been paid. This evening, the Ministry of Natural Resources said we had called too late and the payment position on the fine could not be verified.

Third, we understand that subsequent to a meeting between conservation and community groups with the Minister of Natural Resources, reports say a stop order has been issued and the “research work has ceased for the time being. That is unconfirmed. Fourth, a commitment has reportedly been made for an investigation will be conducted with conservation and community groups and the Forestry Department.

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