Archive for The Animals of Our Protected Areas

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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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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Rare Crested Caracara found by Ya’axché Ranger


CARACARA (Photo Courtesy Ya'axché)

Ya’axché ranger Victor Bonilla was on his way to work on the morning of Monday, 2nd November 2009, and  noticed a relatively large bird of prey lying on the road. An avid birder, Victor stopped to take a look and was astounded when he identified it immediately as a Crested caracara (Caracara cheriway). This species has rarely been recorded within Belize, let alone the Toledo District, making this a surprising find. This incident also highlights the impact that roads have on biodiversity, something that has concerned Ya’axché for several years now. To monitor this, and as part of its Biodiversity Research, Inventory and Monitoring (or BRIM) System, Ya’axché has made a point of recording all dead animals that its rangers find on the road on their way to and from work along Belize’s Southern Highway every day. Like all of the aspects of Ya’axché’s BRIM system, the information gathered on ‘roadkill’ is fed directly into informing and the organisation’s management efforts.


Caracara (Photo courtesy Ya'axché Conservation Trust)

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Endangered Species Day – Looking at the Baird’s Tapir

In celebration of Endangered Species Day, we want to introduce you to an endangered species found in our protected areas – the Baird’s Tapir.

Tapir caught on motion-activated camera in the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve

Tapir caught on motion-activated camera in the Golden Stream Corridor Preserve (Photo: Ya'axche)

The Baird’s tapir is a large, herbivorous mammal found in the woodlands of Central America.  It is one of three tapir species found in the Americas (there is an additional species found in Malaysia) and the largest land mammal in Central America.

Tapirs have a distinctive prehensile nose which it uses to pick leaves and fruit.  Because of this appendage they appear to be an odd cross between a pig and an elephant, though they are more closely related to horses and rhinoceroses.

Globally they are considered an endangered species, though their status is a little stronger in Belize.  This is because their main threats – habitat destruction and hunting – are more mild in Belize.  With a relatively low human population and about 40% of its landmass under protection, Belize is better equipped than other Central American nations to maintain the large herbivore.  But that’s not to say more can’t be done.  Ongoing threats to the forests of Belize will continue to affect the tapir as agricultural and commercial logging slowly fragment its natural habitat.

A young Baird's tapir

A young Baird's tapir

Most reports of tapir in our protected areas come from rangers who have either heard an animal at night, or seen fresh tracks in the mornings.  Almost exclusively this happens near rivers and streams.

**  Interestingly, a group of tapir is not called a herd, it is called a candle.

(Baby tapir photo creditvia)

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Old Man Lizard

Old Man Lizard

Old Man Lizard

The “Old Man Lizard” is more commonly known as the Helmeted Iguana and is a popular local lizard for its unique looks and docile demeanor. As they rely almost exclusively on their camouflage for defense, they will sit amazingly still, even when approached.

The “old man” reference comes from the apparent gray “beard” made by the frills around its neck and throat which give the animal a scruffy appearance.  They’ll grow to over a foot long, with half their length in their tail.  Their most distinctive feature, however, is their crest which they can raise – while also puffing out their throat scales – when excited.  Males have significantly larger crests than do females.

The animals are found throughout Central American forests (Mexico to Columbia) and are generally found in and among trees where they’ll often rest looking straight up the stem.  Like many iguanas and casque lizards they eat insects, arachnids, worms and smaller lizards.  In some regions of the world, they are a popular house pet.

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Jaguar Captured on Motion-Activated Camera

Well-Camouflaged Jaguar Captured on Motion-Activated Camera

No commentary on the animals of Belize can exclude the jaguar.  Likely no other species gets as much press, attention or coverage as Panthera onca.  It’s an apex predator, the subject of myth and legend, the only of the four “big cats” in the Western hemisphere, and a fantastically beautiful animal.

The jaguar has similar coloration to the African leopard, with the jaguar being the bulkier of the two.  Its preference for dense rainforest and affinity for water gives it something in common with the tiger, and makes Belize and the Maya Mountain Massif an ideal habitat.  In fact, the tiny nation of Belize has the highest jaguar population in Central America.

Jaguar Smile (via Wikipedia)

Jaguar Smile (via Wikipedia)

It eats larger herbivores, including deer, tapirs and peccaries.  (However, coordinating in droves of over 70 animals, peccaries have been known to kill jaguars.)  Along riverbanks they eat turtles and fish.  The jaguar’s bite is so powerful it can easily bite through turtle shells.  Jaguars have the strongest bite of any of the big cat species and have capitalized on that with a unique hunting style.  Whereas most felines will attack its prey’s neck in order to suffocate the animal, jaguars are capable of simply biting down on an animal’s head, crushing its prey to death.  Similarly interesting, jaguars have been seen dabbing at the surface of water with their tail.  When eager fish come to investigate, the big cat sweeps them up with their clawed paws!

Jaguars have a menacing growl.  Follow this link to sound files provided by the Belize Zoo.

Jaguar Print

Jaguar Print

Where their habitat borders against that of humans, jaguars have been reported to attack livestock, though not humans.  In fact, the shy creatures rarely come in contact with humans, making any glimpse of them a rare treat.  On our lands we frequently see jaguar tracks, but even our most experienced rangers will claim no more than one sighting over their many years in the bush.

In Belize, jaguars have been a catalyzing species for conservationists.  Considered a keystone species (one whose health is a determinant for the health of other species), they are the subject of significant study.  In 1986, the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary was established for the preservation of key jaguar habitat.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that region is currently at carrying capacity for jaguars, though I cannot find a linkable source for that at this time.  Bordering Cockscomb is our very own Bladen Nature Reserve, whose jaguar population is as yet unknown.  We’re currently seeking funding to research this area, which we suspect to have quite a sizeable population.

Camera Trap Flash Makes Interesting Photo Effect

Camera Trap Flash Makes Interesting Photo Effect

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