“Wings of Hope” premiere in Gainesville, Florida

In US for BFREE’s home town of Gainesville, Florida our documentary “Wings of Hope” was shown at the 7th annual Cinema Verde International Film Festival. The festival showcased over 30 films from around the world with a goal “to increase public awareness about environmental practices that enhance public health and that improve the quality of life for all.” The Festival also served as a forum for community organizations, businesses, and citizens to discuss ways to work together to create a sustainable culture.

Juvenile harpy eagle - Photo by Kai Reed

Juvenile harpy eagle – Photo by Kai Reed

“Wings of Hope,” is a 20-minute documentary that chronicles the re-discovery of a population of wild Harpy Eagles in the Maya Mountains of southern Belize. The documentary showcases the history of the BFREE and University of North Carolina, Wilmington initiative born from this discovery – the Integrated Community-based Harpy Eagle and Avian Conservation Program. Created by Emmy-award winning filmmakers, Richard and Carol Foster of Wildlife Film Productions, and narrated by Jacob Marlin, this film is rich with breath-taking footage of adult and juvenile Harpy eagles and other wildlife and vistas found in the pristine tropical forests of the Bladen Nature Reserve. Over the seven year duration of the project, the Fosters followed project trainees William Garcia, Liberato Pop, Alejandro Cholum and Thomas Pop as they work to learn about and ultimately protect this rare bird and its diminishing habitat.

BFREE was honored to have “Wings of Hope” shown as part of the Cinema Verde International Film Festival at the Hippodrome State Theater. Following the film, BFREE Director Jacob Marlin along with members of the Alachua Audubon Society answered questions from viewers about harpy eagles, migratory birds and how we can all work together to best protect them.

Haven’t seen “Wings of Hope”? Watch it here.


Education Committee Advancing Education and Long-term monitoring at BFREE

Dr. Stewart Skeate of Lees-McRae College and Sipriano Canti, BFREE Head Ranger and Tour Guide tag trees in the cacao grid for the fruit phenology study

Dr. Stewart Skeate of Lees-McRae College and Sipriano Canti, BFREE Head Ranger and Tour Guide, tag trees in the cacao grid for the fruit phenology study


The BFREE Education Committee was convened in late 2014 to help BFREE deliver the highest quality field courses possible. The committee is chaired by board member Dr. Peter Esselman (US Geological Survey), and composed of professors with long running study abroad programs at BFREE, including Dr. Sara Ash (University of the Cumberlands), Dr. Stewart Skeate (Lees-McRae College), Dr. Maarten Vonhof (Western Michigan University), Dr. James Rotenberg (University of North Carolina Wilmington and BFREE Board Member), and Mr. Mark Lucey (Vermont Commons School).

University of the Cumberlands students learn to extract small mammals from Sherman Traps as part of the small mammal community study.

University of the Cumberlands students learn to extract small mammals from Sherman Traps as part of the small mammal community study.

Over the past year, the committee met monthly and developed a model for curricula that would simultaneously provide valuable field-experiences to students and high-quality data to BFREE’s science and conservation programs. Two curricula have been developed and piloted so far, focuses on comparing small mammal communities and tree flowering and fruiting patterns between cacao and broadleaf forest habitats (developed by Dr. Ash and Skeate respectively). Additional curricula are in development including: a study of bird communities in edge, cacao, and forest habitats; invasive tilapia abundance and effects on native fauna; and stream macro invertebrate community composition and structure. Once piloted, each will be available for implementation by any of the many student groups that come through.

Through the commitment of the Education Committee members, BFREE is not only enhancing its educational offerings, but also contributing to scientific understanding of the Maya Mountains of southern Belize.

Howler monkeys at BFREE

A troop of howler monkeys was recently photographed from the observation tower.

A troop of howler monkeys was recently photographed from the observation tower.

By Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director

Visitors and staff alike at BFREE are regularly serenaded by the sound of the Black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra). This species is conspicuous because their loud vocalizations carry for as many as three miles and they are therefore considered to be the loudest land animal on Earth. Male howler monkeys generally vocalize in order to mark their territory unlike other species that leave their sign with scrapes or scent on the forest floor or on trees.  Their roar can be eerie, giving the impression of a large almost prehistoric creature but when seen up close their relatively small size is surprising.  At BFREE, their vocalizations often startle visitors awake during the night and create quite an uproar during the day.

Howler monkey troop size ranges from 3-4 to over a dozen individuals with the sex ratio being one to three males to every seven to nine females. We currently have in residence at least seven troops within the immediate vicinity. Over the lifetime of BFREE, howler monkeys have continuously been present yet I have noticed over the past five years they seem to have become more accustomed to the field station and its human presence.

Troops range in size from 3 to over a dozen.

Troops range in size from 3 to over a dozen individuals.

Throughout much of its range the species has been declining due to hunting and habitat destruction. As the country of Belize develops and the pressure on resources increases, the slow but steady movement of humans into howler monkey territory, the species must retreat to sanctuaries where food availability and social structure is safeguarded.  The BFREE reserve serves this role for the species and though not intentional has become a sanctuary for this endangered species.

Recently, some of the staff at BFREE observed a newborn Howler monkey had fallen from a tree adjacent to the bunkhouse. We were able to capture the newborn on video. Watch it here. 

Student Spotlight

BFREE Program Coordinator, Tyler Sanville, Interviews UNC Wilmington Graduate Student, James Abbott

Tyler: Hi James, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
James: I’m James Abbott, originally from Yorktown, VA but I have been in Wilmington, NC since 2008. I am a second year graduate student in the Environmental Studies Department at UNCW concentrating in Environmental Education. My undergraduate background from UNCW is in Conservation Biology and Wildlife, specifically birds. I would like to use my research into the conservation of threatened habitats and species as a means to educate and connect people to our environment, our role in that environment, and the positive impact we can have on our environment.

Tapir photographed in the Bladen River by James Abbott

Baird’s Tapir photographed in the Bladen River by James Abbott

Tyler: How did you find out about BFREE and when did you visit?
James: I began volunteering with Dr. Rotenberg’s painted bunting banding program in 2010 as an undergraduate and learned of his work with harpy eagle in Belize. In 2011, I had the chance to visit Belize with Dr. Rotenberg for the first time, though not BFREE. I heard a lot about BFREE that trip from both Dr. Rotenberg and Judy Dourson (Director of Educational Programs at BFREE from 2007-2012)  and told myself that if I got the chance I would try to come back to Belize to visit BFREE.

I graduated and worked as a threatened and endangered species biologist on a Marine Corps base near Wilmington, Camp Lejeune. I left that job to pursue graduate school and it just so happened that Dr. Rotenberg was running his Belize spring break class, the very same I had gone on back in 2011, and this time the class was traveling to BFREE. I couldn’t pass it up. I don’t think Dr. Rotenberg would have let me miss it anyway! That visit to BFREE was for a week in March 2015. The more recent expedition to search for the harpy eagle was over the New Year’s holiday for ten days.

Tyler: What did you do while you were at the BFREE field station?
James: This most recent trip to BFREE was an expedition into the Bladen Nature Reserve up to the harpy eagle nest to see if the birds were nesting or were in the area. We spent one night at BFREE then hiked up into the reserve and spent five days up near the nest. A team of people containing researchers, rangers, harpy experts, BFREE Avian Technicians William Garcia and Gato Pop, and finally BFREE Director Jacob Marlin made the all-day hike up the Bladen River. We did not find the harpy eagles on the nest so we spent the remaining days looking for the birds in nearby areas and from observation points on ridge lines. We returned to BFREE and conducted an unofficial Christmas Bird Count on the BFREE property.

James Abbott traveled with Dr. Jamie Rotenberg on an expedition in search of the Harpy eagle

James Abbott traveled with Dr. Jamie Rotenberg on a January expedition in search of the harpy eagle

Tyler: Do you have a favorite moment from your trip?
James: My favorite moments at BFREE are mornings camping by the river crossing in a hammock and listening to the river and the rainforest wake up; it is a surreal and immersive experience. My favorite activity at BFREE is climbing up to the top of the observation tower to see the 360 degree view of the canopy, the mountains, and the all of the birds and monkeys around you – all at eye level.

Tyler: Is there anything that you miss since leaving the BFREE field station?
James: I think the two things I miss the most about BFREE are the camaraderie between the visiting groups and the staff at the station. Everyone is very welcoming and it creates a great atmosphere for learning and research. The second thing I miss is that special kind of peace that comes from a total disconnect of contact from all of the information and technology that clouds up everyday life in the states. It really makes you appreciate the natural world and your real part in it.

Tyler: Do you have any advice for someone visiting the BFREE field station?

  • Welcome the full experience – the field station and the rainforest it helps protect are truly special.
  • Realize how liberating it is to be BFREE and how much more natural you feel.
  • Talk to the staff and any other people visiting the station. You will get a greater understanding and appreciation of life in Belize. Other visiting researchers and groups have a wealth of knowledge and experience in many different fields so it is a great place learn.
  • Embrace long pants and shirts, howler monkey wake up calls, and bring an umbrella.

Rotary Wheeling to BFREE

Interior of Composting toilet

Interior stall of one of the composting toilets at BFREE

By Caitlin Addison-Howard, Rotary Toilet Project Coordinator

Our group of Rotarians from Corozal Rotary Club #1794 was charged with bringing back information on a working composting toilet design. The toilet needed to meet a few requirements: low or no water use, a model that would improve the general health of students and an inexpensive and sustainable design.

Little did we know when we contacted Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) that we would soon be awakened from our environmental stasis and enter the Matrix.

Yes, we knew that a composting toilet had been designed and built at BFREE. We called ahead and had been assured that the units had been working efficiently for over a year. The idea of driving down the Hummingbird Highway to visit the site and experience the toilet gave us a feeling of adventure and expectation.

The adventure quickly became even more challenging. We found that BFREE was located in the Bladen Nature Reserve and we would be “hiking in” about six miles off the main road. Our group dwindled to five and we started packing our bags for the journey.  At the last minute one of our Rotarians came up with a vehicle that he said would take us “all the way”. The drive was beautiful and the terrain went from the flat lands of the Corozal District sugar cane fields to the rolling hills of Stan Creek and Toledo.

At the entrance to Bladen Nature Reserve we parked the car and piled into the four-wheel drive for the last leg of the trip. A Safari could not have been any more fascinating. At the end of the road, we shouldered our packs and crossed the Bladen River. Crossing that river was tantamount to crossing the River Jordan. We came seeking a vision of a sustainable, effective composting toilet. Just one day later we crossed back over the Bladen as converts to the beauty of that toilet. It fulfilled our list of requirements and more.

Jacob Marlin and his courteous staff gave us all the support and information we needed to bring back to our home club. They fed us, led us through a night walk in the jungle and we left knowing that BFREE would be a sacred place in our minds for a long time to come.

Workshop designs strategy to safeguard long-term survival of the Hicatee turtle in Belize

On February 25-26, 2016, Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) in collaboration with Turtle Survival Alliance, the Belize Fisheries Department, and the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens hosted the 2nd Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop at the BFREE Field Station in southern Belize.  Unique to Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, the Central American River Turtle, locally known as the Hicatee (Dermatemys mawii), has been driven to the edge of extinction throughout its range by illegal harvesting and overconsumption.

hicatee forum 1

Workshop participants compare Hicatee hatchling tail size as a way to determine whether they are male or female

To address this risk, the forum brought together stakeholders from the scientific community, government officials, NGOs and other stakeholders to share findings and information on the status of the Hicatee turtle, present ongoing initiatives, and map out future efforts to conserve this critically endangered river turtle. Twenty-seven participants traveled from Guatemala, Brazil, the USA and from within Belize to attend the two-day workshop.

Four major themes were addressed during the forum 1) Legislation and Law Enforcement, 2) Public Outreach and Education, 3) Captive Management, and 4) Research and Surveys.  Presentations by invited participants focused on regional efforts within these areas.  Each theme was deliberated on in detail. From these discussions two working groups were formed.  One working group will compile a report based on the most current harvest and survey data and will present recommendations to the Belize Fisheries Department for a revised version of the laws and regulations regarding the Hicatee.  The second working group will develop a long-term research and monitoring strategy including the identification of priority populations for protection that can serve as source populations for the species’ recovery.  Additionally, workshop attendees participated in an IUCN Red List meeting to update the species report– now ten years out of date –  based on the most current information,  This species continues to be ranked Critically Endangered and faces a high risk of extinction throughout its range. Participants also discussed advocating for the Hicatee to become officially recognized as the “National Reptile of Belize.”

Hicatee hatchling

Hicatee hatchling

Jacob Marlin and Tom Pop lead a tour of the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center

Jacob Marlin and Tom Pop lead a tour of the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center

Participants traveled from Guatemala, the US and from within Belize for the two day Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop