memorable, comfortable, affordable ... Punta Gorda, Toledo, Belize

What is a hickatee?

Behold the hickatee, seemingly asleep -- and yet afloat! This Central American river turtle (Dermatemys mawii) is so aquatic that it spends its entire life in or on the water -- except when it has eggs to lay. And even then it chooses the soggiest season when the swollen river will carry it to higher ground.

There is deposits its treasures -- perhaps as many as sixteen -- and there, beneath the camouflage of roting vegetation, the eggs incubate themselves. The 'mother' has long ago lumbered back to the river, diving again into her element!

Dressed in full armour, the hickatee may attain a weight of nearly 50 lbs. The female is somewhat smaller, with a shorter tail and a grey head unadorned by the golden emblem and matching spotty insignia of the male. The carapace, brown or olive drab, is only slightly curved; the ventral shell is cream-coloured.

Waterways of southern Mexico, of northern Guatemala, and of Belize's coastal lowlands are the normal home of the hickatee. The deeper and clearer the water the better, and Belize's outsized lagoons are considered by them to be prime residential areas.

Unfortunately for the future of the species, this turtle -- itself a herbivore -- is prized by carnivorous man and, with its proclivity for nocturnal activity, it is easy daytime prey as it lazily drifts the water's surface, to be whacked unconscious by a well-aimed oar. Or it is simply snatched up as it naps on the river bed in the dry season's depleted protection.

Adapted from "Jungle Walk" by Katie Stevens


As Katie Stevens says, hickatee is a much-prized food and a traditional Easter meal in Belize. It is on the IUCN red-list - meaning that it is critically endangered.

Only limited legislation protects the hickatee in Belize, with a 1 month closed season, no trading of hickatee meat, and a maximum of 3 allowed to be caught per person.

We have teamed up with TIDE for their 'Hicatee Project', designing a poster and schools presentation. Their children's educational programme begins in the New Year, looking at the reasons for the hickatee's decline, what can be done to reverse the trend, and urging families to 'save it for Easter'.