Spring ’19 Hicatee Health Assessments

Team Hicatee Spring 2019

During the early March Hicatee Health Assessment, a total of 214 turtles were assessed at the Hicatee conservation and Research Center (HCRC). The primary purpose of the spring health assessment was to perform a basic exam of the overall health of the captive population at the HCRC. Because oviposition takes place between the months of November and February, it was also relevant to check for the presence of additional eggs. 

Prior to the Health Assessments beginning, a small team of volunteers arrived to help prepare the site. The team cleaned hatchling tanks and moved the 140 hatchlings from the 2018 cohort from the soft release cage where they had been housed since December. They were placed there during the coldest months of the year because the water in Pond A maintained higher temperatures than in the smaller, above-ground tanks where they live during warmer months. Hatchlings were counted and given a quick check before being transferred back to the tanks where they acclimated until their assessments a few days later.

The three day processing started off with adult turtles being netted from the pond A, then placed in their respective holding area awaiting assessment. On day two, Adult turtles from Pond B was then netted and assessed. Day 3 commenced with a scanning of both pond perimeters for nest cavities which showed signs of eggs. Followed by the assessment of hatchlings from the 2018 cohort. Results from this year’s spring health check are still under analysis.

Cayle Pearson and Sarah Cristoff of Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens isolated several adult male turtles to collect additional data that will help them troubleshoot issues relating to the Hicatee turtles held in captivity at their facility.

We were grateful to receive support and assistance from the following participants in our spring health check: Dr. Isabelle Paquet Durand, Veterinarian at Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Cayle Pearson, Supervisor of Herpetology, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, and Sarah Cristoff, Veterinary Technician, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Heather Alford, Missy Belmer, Laurie Haven, Doris Dimmitt, Rodney Dimmitt, Tim Gregory, and Emily Gregory. We would like to express our gratitude to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for their financial support for this spring’s Hicatee health assessment.

The Hicatee Conservation & Research Center is a joint protect between BFREE and Turtle Survival Alliance. The bi-annual Assessments help ensure the health of captive animals at the HCRC and also contribute to our ongoing research of these critically endangered turtles. #savethehicatee

Land Snail Workshop at BFREE

Dan and Judy Dourson led a two-day workshop in the new BFREE classroom

The first workshop on the Land Snails of Belize was led by biologists, Dan and Judy Dourson, and took place at the BFREE field station in late February. The workshop’s goal was to give participants an understanding of which snails can be found in southern Belize and to train them to identify land snails with the help of  the materials that the Dourson’s created. These materials include the newly published book “Land Snails of Belize: A Remarkable Chronicle of Diversity and Function” and the associated Field Identification card.  

Students used Field ID cards to begin to identify snails

The course was designed for tour guides and educators and therefore focused on the importance of land snails in the environment, described why they matter in Belize, and also provided great examples of how to use snails in short lessons. During this hands-on workshop, the group searched for, collected, and learned to identify and sort snails.

Participants included NGO representatives, tour guides and interested members of the public. These included: Morgan Lucot, Sipriano Canti, Christian Bech, Jaren Serano, Marten Ack, Andres Chen, Rousana Romero, Marleni Coy Emillian, Joaquin Obando, Andrew Choco, and Leanne Knox.

Special thanks to Leanne Knox for providing transportation to the BFREE Field Station for workshop participants.

Due to the interest in this course, BFREE and the Dourson’s plan to partner to create future workshops on Belize’s lesser known creatures in coming years. Stay tuned!

Land Snails of Belize: A Remarkable Chronicle of Diversity and Function,” is available on Amazon. Don’t forget to use Amazon Smile to support BFREE while shopping online. The associated Land Snail Field Identification Cards are available for sale at the Belize Zoo and the BFREE field station.

Identifying Land Snails 
Searching through leaf litter to find and collect snails
Land Snails that were previously collected
Participants of the 2019 Land Snail Workshop at BFREE

New Rearing Pond at the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center

Designed to study the reproductive biology and to determine if the Central American River turtle could be bred in captivity, the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center opened in 2014 and was met with immediate success when, in the summer of 2015, the first seven hatchlings emerged. This was followed by five hatchlings in 2016, 84 hatchlings in 2017, and 179 in 2018.

The extrusion welder was used to join hard plastic pond liner

The HCRC originally included two large breeding ponds, an overflow pond and several rearing tanks. The small rearing tanks at the center quickly reached capacity and HCRC staff identified an urgent need to provide the necessary space and improved environment for the 2018 hatchlings and the soon to arrive 2019 cohort. After much discussion, it was determined that converting the overflow pond into a large rearing pond for hatchlings and juveniles was the most cost effective and quickest solution to housing all the expected hatchlings now and in the foreseeable future.

We secured funding from Oklahoma City’s Zoo’s Care Grant Program and from Zoo New England to begin pond modifications. Additional support was provided through funding for supplies offered by Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens in 2018 and the purchase of a very important piece of machinery was made possible thanks to proceeds from the Turtle Survival Alliance’s 2018 fundraising auction.

Pond modification was slow to get underway due a very wet rainy season. However, during February and March construction took place and 140 turtles were placed in their new home in April. The rearing pond (Pond C) is forty-feet in diameter and approximately six-feet deep at the center. A six-foot perimeter fence will encircle the pond and fresh water is provided by solar powered pumps which were already in place at the facility. We will modify Pond C in the coming months to include a floating island and the planting of food trees and grasses as has been done in Ponds A and B. Our hope is that the facility will offer a healthy environment for all hatchlings produced at the HCRC until they are ready for release into the wild.  

Thanks to the Turtle Survival Alliance for their continued partnership on the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. Thanks also to project sponsors: Oklahoma City Zoo, Zoo New England and Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens.

Birds, Chocolate, Forests, and Allegheny College

Allegheny College students pose for a photo at BFREE during the Birds, Chocolate, Forest Field Course in May 2019. 

Written By, Beth Choate, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Environmental Science and Sustainability
Allegheny College

BFREE’s Birds, Chocolate and Forests course provided students with a real life example of the complexities of conservation within the rainforests of southern Belize. Through interactive demonstrations and presentations, field research and experiments, day-excursions, conversations with all members of the BFREE team, and exploring the surrounding environment, students developed an understanding of the relationships not only between birds, chocolate, and forests, but people as well. The complicated web of relationships that exists among efforts to conserve biodiversity and livelihoods is something we speak often about in our Environmental Science and Sustainability courses at Allegheny College. In our introductory course for the major, we make it clear to students that you will not find the solutions to environmental problems in a book. Each problem is unique and requires individuals who can critically examine the issue to devise a unique and thoughtful solution. The 2-week experience with our BFREE guides was a perfect compliment to this concept. In a country where people rely on the natural resources of the surrounding forests to provide them with medicines, food, and fertile land for agriculture, it quickly became clear that you couldn’t simply tell people to stop using the forest. BFREE  provides a unique solution: conserve the forest and grow a cash crop within the understory in an effort to conserve birds and other organisms, as well as livelihood. Jacob spoke with us about ongoing efforts to ensure that methods of cacao agro-forestry were fully understood so that local farmers could create successful farms and provide for their families demonstrating that BFREE is thinking about the sustainability of their program. The complexities of conservation also became apparent when learning about the Hicatee turtle, talking with Ernesto about traditional Mayan culture, and spending time on the coast in Placencia. This course was the perfect compliment to what we are saying in the classroom:
solving environmental problems is complicated.

Students from Allegheny College spend time in the BFREE cacao nursery. The group received hands-on experience in what it takes to make chocolate, from seed – to bean – to bar!

In order to solve those complicated problems, one must be curious, flexible, and have excellent communication and intercultural skills. Many of our students had minimal experience traveling outside of the US and very few had been submerged in a culture different to their own. When students are outside of their comfort zone, they are forced to adapt and push their own limits. It is through experiencing this unknown, whether it be using compost toilets, learning to fall asleep to the sound of howler monkeys, or discovering just how difficult harvesting cacao in the jungle can be, students were forced to overcome new challenges. After reading their final journal entries, many of our students surprised themselves. They learned that they are capable of much more than they ever thought possible. Through conversations with the BFREE staff and local Belizeans we met during the trip, worldviews were expanded and communication skills improved. For many students, this was the highlight of the trip, getting to know individuals with completely different life experiences than themselves. From an educational perspective, this is impossible to teach in a classroom or while simply touring around. BFREE provided an excellent experience for students to be completely submerged in the Belize culture, all while learning in a completely new environment.

A pile of roasted cocoa beans lay on the table. These beans have a thin, papery shell around them which needs to be removed. The students are cracking the beans open and the shell is removed in a process called winnowing. The lighter shells are blown away with fans, leaving behind pieces of pure cocoa bean, known as “nibs”.

Herp Survey at BFREE

Researchers from L to R: Briana Sealey, Courtney Whitcher, Alison Davis Rabosky, Peter Cerda, Iris Holmes, Michael Grundler, John David Curlis, Erin Westeen, Maggie Grundler

Article by, Iris Holmes

This May, a group of researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley, visited BFREE to do a survey of amphibians and reptiles. They worked for two weeks, both on the BFREE property and at Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Between these places, they recorded 47 species. Two of those finds (one snake and one frog) were significant range extensions within Belize.

Iris Holmes, University of Michigan Researcher, measures a snake collected during the survey in the BFREE Lab.

In addition to a biodiversity survey, the researchers collected a variety of data on each animal. They recorded snake anti-predator displays and took high-quality photos to study snake and lizard anti-predator and social color displays. One project focused on how frogs fluoresce in the UV spectrum and found new accounts of biofluorescence in several species.

The researchers also took microbiome samples from frog skin and snake and lizard digestive tracts. These samples will be used to understand the parasites that infect these species, and the bacteria that might help protect their hosts against these parasites. Other researchers worked to test hypotheses the diets of snakes, lizards, and frogs. Understanding what animals eat is key to conserving them – animals can’t survive if they can’t get enough food! The team was happy to find such diversity and abundance in the amphibians and reptiles of Belize. It was a particularly special experience to be at BFREE as the hicatee turtles were hatching.  Watching animals emerge with the first rains of the wet season was a true privilege.

2019 Field Season Wrap Up

We are wrapping up another incredibly rewarding year of hosting field courses at the BFREE Field Station. 2019 brought seven colleges and universities from the US and one from Belize. Altogether, just over 100 students and 20 instructors spent between 4-10 nights at BFREE. They could be found immersing themselves in the jungle hiking both day and night, working on independent research projects,  learning about the critically endangered hicatee turtle, tasting cacao fresh off the pod, swimming in the river, snacking on johnny cakes, and searching for the elusive Harpy eagle. 

Most field courses require students to work on independent research projects in order to receive an introduction to environmental field methods through hands-on learning. Students gain a basic understanding of field methods necessary to discuss and research various environmental issues. Some will come prepared with a question in mind before they arrive at BFREE, however, for many once they arrive with one sweeping view of the jungle, the possibilities of research are endless. Below are just a few examples of the independent research projects students worked on this year. 

  • 1. Are howler monkeys most active at dusk or at dawn?
  • 2. Does the height of the tree determine the size of its buttress?
  • 3. Will the trees near the river or a waterbody grow taller than the ones that are not near a waterbody?
  • 4. Will a foreign liquid throw the leafcutter ants off their trail?
  • 5. Does the higher density of insects/food source in an area coincide with a higher density of birds in that area?

A special thanks to each of our instructors that make our Faculty-Led Field Courses a success. We look forward to having you back next time! 

2019 BFREE Field Course Group Photos

The University of North Carolina Wilmington, Wilmington, N.C.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Amherst, MA

Marshall University, Huntington, West Virginia

Jacksonville University, Jacksonville, FL 

Flagler College, St Augustine, FL

Independence Junior College, Independence, Belize

Allegheny College, Meadville, PA

Nebraska Wesleyan University, Lincoln, Nebraska


We would love to see the photos you took during your time in Belize. Please share them via social media on             Instagram @bfreebz or by email to contact@bfreebz.org. 

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
  • UPrinting.com
  • 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.

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 tsanville@bfreebz.org.

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