Monkey River Watershed Association by Peter Essleman

Over 30 feet of beach has been renewed naturally since the installation of geotubes in Monkey River Village preventing this house and others from falling into the sea.

BFREE is located in the headwaters of the Bladen Branch of the Monkey River, a large tropical river that
discharges to the Caribbean Sea south of Placencia. Despite the pristine character of the headwaters
the Monkey River watershed has been home to Belize’s banana industry for nearly 100 years, with
particularly intensive cultivation since the early 1980’s. The banana industry brought clearing, roads,
laborer settlements, squatters, intensive gravel mining, fish and wildlife harvest, deforestation and
introduction of non-native species. One of the most striking outcomes of 40 years of watershed
exploitation was the disruption of sand delivery to the mouth of the Monkey River, which resulted in
partial destruction of one of Belize’s great historical villages, Monkey River Village, to beach erosion.
The crisis at the river mouth is a reflection of degradation along the entire river continuum, with nine
other communities suffering from reduced river flow, toxic pollution, depleted fish and game, and poor
water quality.

In response to the crisis, BFREE partnered with all communities in the watershed to form the Monkey
River Watershed Association. MRWA is a community-based organization working to conserve and
restore the integrity of the entire Monkey River Watershed and ensure that it continues to provide a
multitude of benefits to watershed residents and the coastal ecosystem. MRWA’s first success after
registering in 2017 was to secure a US$50,000 grant from the United Nations Development Programme.
The funds were used to pilot test inexpensive beach protection structures in front of Monkey River
Village and write a “roadmap” for restoration of the Monkey River watershed. One hundred and sixty
feet of sand filled “geotubes” have since been installed in front of the most threatened properties,
leading to 30 feet of beach growth for the first time in decades. The roadmap itself was completed in
April 2019. In addition to identifying reduced sand delivery to the coast from upriver—not sea level
rise—as the likely main cause of the beach erosion problem, the roadmap also defines restoration goals
and actions needed to achieve the desired states of the river and the shoreline. BFREE will continue to
support MRWA with fundraising in the months and years ahead, and remains committed to protection
of the Bladen Nature Reserve and connected protected areas which provide water and sand to all
downstream areas.

Members of the Monkey River Watershed Association including BFREE ED, Jacob Marlin present at a community meeting in Monkey River on February 1, 2019.

2019 Fall Hicatee Health Assessment

Biannual health assessments continue to serve two important purposes. 1) They allow us to check the
general and reproductive health of all captive animals, and 2) they enable us to continue to gather
growth data which is added to our long-term dataset on the species.

Understanding whether or not our turtles and their environment are healthy is critical to the success of
the work at the HCRC. Therefore, we bring in veterinarians who specialize in reptiles and can address
immediate needs like injury or infection, as well as help diagnose other chronic issues that have to be
dealt with appropriately over the long-term. The veterinarians look for signs of aggression and check the
reproductive health of mature females and males to ensure that the conditions in this captive
environment are optimal for a productive breeding population of turtles. They also look for signs of
malnutrition and overcrowding in our captive born turtles. Because these animals are completely
herbivorous and they generally haven’t been raised successfully in captivity over long periods of time,
we have lots of questions about ensuring that their diet is enough for them.

Creating a long-term dataset on this population helps ensure that others working with the species can
benefit from the knowledge we have gained. Earlier this year, we published our first scientific note
describing the physical characteristics including size and weight of our captive-born population using
data collected immediately after hatching. Although the species dates back to the dinosaurs, this
information had not been collected or published prior to our note. In fact, there is very little information
published on Hicatee turtles, making these assessments an ideal time for visiting researchers to collect
other data in addition to growth metrics.

Our health assessments also benefit the humans who participate by creating opportunities for students,
scientists, zookeepers and veterinarians to expand their skills to the field and allowing them to work
with a rare and unique species – one which most people never have access to.

During this fall’s health assessment, we were once again lucky to bring together a great team and we
achieved all of our goals. The adult and subadults continue to be healthy and growing, and the same is
true for the captive-born turtles who are adjusting to their new home in the recently completed rearing
pond. A few of the youngest turtles were identified as not thriving so they traveled with Dr. Isabelle back
to the Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic in Cayo to remain under her care until they are a bit stronger.

This year’s veterinarian team was comprised of Dr. Shane Boylan, lead veterinarian from the South Carolina Aquarium, Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, BWRC, and Dr. Sean Perry, DVM, is a PhD candidate specializing in reptiles at Louisiana State University School of Veterinary Medicine. We are grateful to the Turtle Survival Alliance for their funding of the fall health assessment.


My name is Stevie Cisek.  I am currently a Wildlife Educator at Ohio Wildlife Center, which is a non profit organization that is dedicated to fostering awareness and appreciation of Ohio’s native wildlife through rehabilitation, education and wildlife health studies. Prior to being an educator, I attended Otterbein University where I graduated with a degree in Zoo and Conservation Science. During my time as an Otterbein student I had the opportunity to travel to Belize to attend a field course at BFREE. This was where I first learned about  the Hicatee and the conservation efforts being done by the TSA and BFREE to save this critically endangered species. It was at this time that I learned that the HCRC was the only facility of its kind in Belize. The research being done there is providing vital knowledge about the behavior and biology of the Hicatee turtle, which little is known about. The information gained via these efforts will then be used to help make informed strategies and actions to help preserve this amazing species.  I had the opportunity to return to BFREE for my second time to help with the fall health assessments. I was excited to learn that their breeding program had been so successful in the last year. They now have so many hatchlings that they will begin working on the next phase of their conservation efforts. The reintroduction of individuals back into the areas where the Hicatee populations have either declined or have been extirpated from. With overharvesting for human consumption being the Hicatees greatest threat the team knows that during this phase, education is going to be critical.

Awards and Recognition


Revenue generated by station use fees is generally enough to maintain basic operations, but does not cover the implementation of the various research projects on-site and in the surrounding protected areas. Grants as well as both institutional and private donations are necessary to support new and existing research projects such as the  Cacao Agroforestry Project and the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center.

Annual donations and grants help stimulate existing research and develop new research projects in the rainforest at BFREE and in other surrounding protected areas. They also help us to provide scholarships and training opportunities to our Belizean community.

GRANTS & Other Support

While a large portion of our projects and research is funded from revenue generated by BFREE programs, we also apply for grants, government support and receive in-kind donations from a variety of agencies and organizations.

We are grateful to the following organizations that have so graciously funded projects and research at BFREE:


  • US Department of the Interior – (Year 6) Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Columbus Zoo Fund for Conservation – Donated with Turtle Survival Alliance, our partner for the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center
  • Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens 


  • US Department of the Interior – (Year 5) Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Turtle Conservation Fund
  • Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens


  • US Department of the Interior – (Year 4) Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Columbus Zoo Fund for Conservation – Donated with Turtle Survival Alliance, our partner for the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center
  • Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden


  • US Department of the Interior – (Year 3) Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • American Zoo Association – Donated with Turtle Survival Alliance, our partner for the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center
  • Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund – Donated with Turtle Survival Alliance, our partner for the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center


  • US Department of the Interior – (Year 2) Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Fresno Chaffee Zoo – Donated with Turtle Survival Alliance, our partner for the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center


  • US Department of the Interior – Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • Norcross Wildlife Foundation
  • Charles L. Cahill Grant from UNC Wilmington (Year 2) – Recipient Dr. James Rotenberg of UNCW for Avian Research at BFREE
  • Mohamed Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund – Donated with Turtle Survival Alliance, our partner for the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center


  • The Columbus Zoo & Aquarium/ Conservation Grants Program
  • Charles L. Cahill Grant from UNC Wilmington – Recipient Dr. James Rotenberg of UNCW for Avian Research at BFREE


  • The Columbus Zoo & Aquarium/ Conservation Grants Program
  • UNC Wilmington
  • Protected Area Conservation Trust
  • Optics for the Tropics
  • Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund
  • Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo
  • Biodiversity Research Institute
  • Copperhead Environmental Consulting
  • Natural Encounters Conservation Fund
  • Norcross Foundation Conservation International
  • National Geographic Society/ Waitt Fund
  • The Nature Conservancy, Belize Program
  • The Belize Zoo

We are also grateful to the following organizations that have made donations to help BFREE build operating capacity and increase our marketing efforts:

  • The Mountain Corporation
  • The Dignity Project – Second Generation
  • Brumberg Publications

Sample 8-Day Field Course

Day 1               Belize City/ Tropical Education Center

  • Arrive at the International Airport in Belize City where you will be greeted by BFREE Program Director. Lunch will be at a local restaurant for your first taste of Belizean cuisine. Travel another half hour along the Western Highway to the Tropical Education Center (TEC) adjacent to the Belize Zoo. Settle into dormitory style rooms and then have time to look for crocodiles before dinner. Dinner at 6:30 and will be followed by a night tour of the Belize Zoo, the “Best Little Zoo in the World.”

Day 2            BFREE

  • Breakfast will be at 7:30 am at TEC, after which you will travel to Belmopan, the capital city of Belize. Stop by the local market where you will be immersed in Belizean culture as you assist staff in the purchase of fruits and vegetables for your stay at BFREE. You’ll experience new and delicious tropical fruits and amazing fresh juices before heading south down the stunning Hummingbird Highway and stopping by Ms. Bertha’s Tamale Stand for lunch. Continue your journey on the Southern Highway, arriving at the entrance road to BFREE 2:30 pm. Load your gear into a BFREE vehicle, fill your water bottle and apply sunscreen as you prepare for your 6 mile hike to BFREE taking you through several distinct habitats (guided by BFREE staff) as you experience an explosion of sights, sounds and smells of the tropics. Settle into the bunkhouse and then dinner at 6:30 pm. Optional night walk after dinner around BFREE to look for some of the amazing wildlife!

Day 3            BFREE

  • Breakfast will be at 7:30 pm followed by BFREE orientation and tour of the facilities. Lunch at noon followed by a presentation at 1:30 “Watersheds of the Bladen.” Take a river walk/swim downstream to examine the impacts to the watershed. Spend the rest of the afternoon observing and writing down questions that interest you in preparation for your mini-research projects.
  • Dinner will be at 6:30 pm. After dinner, there will be a talk on, “BFREE’s Avian and Harpy Eagle Project.” Participate in an optional night walk to search for wildlife.

Day 4            BFREE

  • Early morning birding (optional) followed by breakfast at 7:30. After breakfast, join BFREE’s Avian Research Team as they mist net and band both resident and neo-tropical migratory birds, and put geolocators on wood thrushes. Lunch will be at noon followed by a brief meeting to discuss mini-research projects. The rest of the afternoon is spent focused on your project work. Dinner will be at 6:30 pm followed by evening Optional night hike to look for animals.


Day 5            BFREE

  • Early morning birding followed by breakfast at 7:30. Receive a presentation about Tropical Rainforests immediately followed by jungle hike on the BFREE boundary line trail. You’ll have the opportunity to have a leisurely picnic lunch along the way.
  • Return to BFREE by 1:30 pm in time to work on independent projects until dinner. After dinner, join resident biologist, Dan Dourson as he mist nets for bats.

Day 6            BFREE

  • Breakfast will be at 7:30. Spend the morning completing your mini-project work. Lunch will be at noon followed by free time until 3 PM. Use your free time to hike to observation tower, take a canoe ride on the lagoon, or enjoy a cool swim in the Bladen River. Meet at 3 PM to begin presentation of project results. Dinner at 6:30 PM followed by a Jungle Costume Party – you’ll make your own costume!

Day 7            Placencia

  • Breakfast will be at 6:30. Prepare for transport out of BFREE along with gear. Travel to the seaside village of Mango Creek where you will board the Hokey Pokey water taxi for a 10 minute ride to the beach town of Placencia. Settle into rooms at a local hotel. Lunch will be at a local restaurant. After lunch, gear up for a snorkel trip out to Laughing Bird Caye Marine Reserve. Look for manatee and dolphin along the way. Learn about the issues facing coastal Belize from Lisa Carne, local marine biologist. Dinner will be at a local restaurant.

Day 8             Placencia/ Departure Day

  • Breakfast will be at a local restaurant. Pack up and head for the Placencia Airport where you will board a local airline for a short 45 minute ride to the Belize International Airport for your flight home.

Outreach Programs

BFREE staff visited classrooms throughout Toledo District to show the conservation film “Wings of Hope”.

BFREE’s programs provide an important supplement to the curriculum and are possibly the only formal conservation message that students and teachers receive. BFREE outreach is offered in the form

Outreach for schools.

of classroom visits and field trips, both to the field station and to other educational facilities in Belize, like the Belize Zoo. Programs target specific conservation messages to students of all ages, but primarily focus on ages ten years old and up. In the past, we used the charismatic Harpy Eagle as the flagship species for many of the outreach events.

 We work with villages that buffer BFREE and other nearby protected areas in the Toledo District. These include: Golden Stream, Medina Bank, San Isidro, Bella Vista, Bladen, Independence, Big Falls, San Miguel, and Trio.


Check out this article featured in the The Belize Zooletter featuring a school program presented collaboratively by BFREE & the Belize Zoo in 2012.

 We believe that environmental education programs in local communities are essential in leading to increased awareness and a greater appreciation of their role in conserving Belize’s protected areas.”

In the future, BFREE would like to continue our existing programs as well as offer training to adult community members. Those trained will become classroom advocates for the preservation of Belize’s parks and reserves. Advocates will educate students on the important role these protected areas play in providing life-sustaining services for everyone, including fresh air, water, medicinal plants, enjoyment, spiritual value, and for the benefit of species preservation.

Recommended Reading

Below are a few books and articles that can help prepare you for your journey to the Maya Mountains of Belize, Central America.


Available For Purchase

Biodiversity of the Maya Mountains: A focus on the Bladen Nature Reserve by Daniel C. Dourson

Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird by Bruce Barcott

Jaguar: One Man’s Struggle to Establish the World’s First Jaguar Preserve by Alan Rabinowitz

Available for Free Online

Belize’s Ecosystems: Threats and Challenges to Conservation in Belize by Colin Young

History of Protected Area Designation, Co-management and Community Participation in Belize by Colin Young And Dr. Robert Horwich in Taking Stock: Belize at 25 Years of Independence

Identification of Deforestation and Forest Degradation Drivers in Belize: Program for the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Central America and the Dominican Republic by Juanita Garcia-Saqui, Pio Saqui and Santos Chicas

Additional related readings:

Biodiversity Loss

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

Breakfast Of Biodiversity: The Political Ecology of Rain Forest Destruction by John Vandermeer

Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rainforests of Central and South America by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata

Birds, Chocolate, Forests

Johnson, R.J., Jedlicka, J.A., Quinn, J.E., and Brandle, J.R. 2011. Global Perspective on Birds in Agricultural Landscapes. Chapter In Integrating Agriculture, Conservation and Ecotourism: Examples from the Field, Pages 55-140.

Nations, J.D. 2006. The Maya Tropical Forest: People, Parks, and Ancient Cities. University of Texas Press. 285 pages.

Parrish, J., Reitsma, R. and Greenberg, R. 2003. Cacao as Crop and Conservation Tool.

Rice, R. and Greenberg, R. 2000. Cacao Cultivation and the Conservation of Biological Diversity. 2000. Ambio 29:167-173.

Have others that you would like to recommend for fellow travelers to Belize and BFREE? Please email and we will add them to our list!

Field Courses

University of Massachusetts, Amherst group spent time birding. Photo by Sean Werle

BFREE offers content specific study abroad experiences called “field courses.” Designed in collaboration with the school instructor, these courses range in length from one week to three weeks and are structured to encourage participants to actively engage with and appreciate their natural environment.

Learn about “Birds, Chocolates, Forests” a new field course offering in 2017!

Courses are geared toward high school and college students and may be tailored to incorporate a home-stay experience in local a Maya, Garifuna, or Creole village, a community service project, and/or a visit to one of the many magical places throughout Belize, including the Belize Zoo, ancient Mayan ruins, national parks, the barrier reef, islands and coastal beaches. Students take part in hands-on investigations of Belize’s diverse tropical ecosystems.

BFREE field courses create opportunities for students to become familiar with the scientific investigation of flora and fauna, while also learning about tropical riparian systems, protected areas management, and the manner in which humans interact with these ecosystems.

For pricing, detailed itineraries and other inquiries, contact BFREE Program Coordinator at

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