March 2021 Hicatee Health Assessment

Over the last six years, the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) population of critically endangered Central American River Turtles, Dermatemys mawii, has grown from the 22 founding adults and subadults to 45 breeding adults. Sixty-four clutches of eggs have been deposited from 23 reproductive females resulting in 693 eggs, and over 650 hatchlings. The total current captive population at the HCRC is 345 individuals. Of them, 282 turtles representing 4 cohorts (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020) have been identified for release.

The 2020/2021 egg laying season is almost complete, and in addition to the numbers mentioned above,  we have added 15 clutches totaling almost 150 eggs so far. Our success in breeding and hatching large numbers of D. mawii has provided extensive morphometric data on hatchlings, determined best practices for reliably reproducing the species in captivity, and pushed us towards advancing the next phase of the project which is reintroduction of head-started animals back to their historic range. As part of that initiative, surveys of various rivers were initiated in 2019, and continued in 2020, to help identify potential release sites. In preparation for releases, disease testing of animals raised in captivity is a priority to ensure that they do not pose a health risk to existing wild D. mawii populations.

The Value of Health Assessments

Both individual and population level health screening are important considerations for these programs to ensure that the individuals selected for release are healthy and fit to increase their likelihood of survival post-release, as well as do not pose a health risk to remnant wild populations. Health assessment and pathogen screening also provide baseline data and a reference point for understanding disease ecology in captive and free-ranging animal populations.

With all this in mind, our spring 2021 Hicatee Health Assessment was geared toward sampling a subset of captive turtles in different age classes to collect samples for later diagnosis specifically looking for pathogens. The HCRC Manager, Thomas Pop, along with HCRC Assistant and Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon, implemented the health assessment with the support of Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett.

Prior to our Health Assessment at the HCRC, the team joined up with Day Ligon and Denise Thompson in Central Belize to collect samples from a group of wild individuals to provide a reference and for comparison. All samples were collected under a permit provided by the Belize Fisheries department. Samples will be exported from Belize to the USA, and will be analyzed in a lab in the Wildlife Conservation Society Molecular Laboratory at the Bronx Zoo in New York.   


Thanks to our project partners who made these important events possible.

  • Turtle Survival Alliance
  • Turtle Conservation Fund
  • Global Wildlife Conservation
  • Wildlife Conservation Society
  • Jacksonville Zoo
  • Day Ligon and Denise Thompson

A Tribute to Sonny Garbutt

Sonny Garbutt and Jacob Marlin

A few days, we learned the sad news of Sonny Garbutt’s passing. I first got to know Sonny over 20 years ago when he helped with a baseline study on the health and status of the Monkey River Watershed along with other watershed residents and Dr. Peter Esselman.  The team based out of BFREE for a portion of the study, and I was fortunate to join them as an “assistant/cook” during a foray up into the Bladen Nature Reserve a few days walk from BFREE. It was then that I first felt his strong, but calm presence. His genuineness and unique sense of humor, and his encyclopedia level knowledge of the Monkey River and the natural world.

Over the years Sonny became a part of the BFREE family. He helped with construction projects here at the field station, captained boats for our student groups out on the Belize Barrier Reef, and sometimes provided lectures and told stories related to marine and freshwater conservation topics, sharing his passion for the sustainable use of Belize’s marine resources. He welcomed us and our field courses into his community and his home – always sharing his love for Monkey River and the sea that touches its shores. Sonny also become a close friend of my family and would spend time with my kids over the years, including leading a small group of us down the Bladen River from BFREE to Monkey River Village on an epic two-day canoe trip that we will never forget.  He touched our lives in so many ways.

Rest in Peace Sonny, you will be missed.

Jacob Marlin and the BFREE family

Dry Season at the Turtle Ponds by Jonathan Dubon

HCRC Manager, Tom Pop and Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon hold eggs they collected from the Hicatee ponds.

As the dry season rapidly approaches, we at the HCRC have a lot of work on our hands to keep our program running at its best. We have several mini-projects currently being conducted, such as improving the husbandry, daily maintenance of the site, taking care of about 400 critically endangered Hicatee turtles, and managing 100+ eggs (so far this year)!  We also spend our time brainstorming ways to improve water quality to help our turtles live healthy and happy. One of the ideas we are implementing is improving solar energy to pump more freshwater into the ponds by building a solar tower. We have dug and constructed the foundation for the tower, and in the coming weeks, we plan to finish constructing the braces and the tower itself.  

Nesting Season

A clutch of eggs collected during the 2020-2021 nesting season.

The nesting season began in early November 2020, and we have since collected 12 clutches of eggs or 108 total eggs. We recently discovered the 13th clutch; however, we will not collect it yet and are conducting a natural hatchment experiment on it first. We are unsure how many eggs are in this clutch, but I estimate anywhere between 7-11. Tom Pop, HCRC Manager, and I have also found three old clutches of eggs from last season which may not have been fertile. Adding up every clutch, our grand total is nearly 1,000 Hicatee eggs laid at our breeding facility!

Wildlife at the Turtle Ponds

Working at the HCRC in the middle of the jungle has its many benefits. Not only do we get to see cute and adorable Hicatee turtles every day (yes, we all think they are adorable), we also see other exciting wildlife.  Most common are green iguanas, pond sliders, the great curassow, crested guan, cat-eyed snakes, and speckled racers. Tom and I were recently pruning the fig trees around the turtle ponds when we heard some familiar birds in the trees not too far from us. We listened as we continued our work, and the calls were getting louder and louder. As we looked up, we saw a huge flock of beautiful and magnificent Scarlet macaws that had flown directly above us. We immediately looked up and started counting at least 20 macaws perched above the turtle ponds, so close we could see them clearly, even without binoculars. If you thought it couldn’t get better, it does! A few months ago, I witnessed my first wild Harpy eagle perched on a tree in the cacao farm just a few meters from the HCRC.  An amazing lifer, right!? 

It will be a full year since I started my fellowship position at BFREE this June. I’ve enjoyed witnessing all of the seasonal changes, the wildlife, and the opportunity to learn more about the Hicatee turtle. 

Creating a Cacao Agroforestry System by Lenardo Ash

Young cacao trees in the nursery.

Who could possibly disagree with the restoration of degraded tropical forests while conserving the genetics of a rare cacao species? BFREE’s reforestation efforts involve the planting of Criollo cocoa trees, as well as temporary shade trees, fruit trees, and other permanent shade trees (emergents) in small naturally degraded areas of the forest.

As BFREE’s Cacao Fellow, I have spent significant energy working in and documenting the plant nursery. This year we plan to produce 5,000 Criollo cacao trees. Bags in the nursery have already been filled with soil, with one of our soil’s main components being compost. The compost at BFREE consists of vegetable peels, eggshells, food remnants from the kitchen, and other organic waste produced during pruning and weeding.

Cacao Fellow, Lenardo Ash stands in front of a selectin of germinated cacao seeds.

For me, one of the main highlights for this year will be continued experimentation with the grafting of Criollo cacao. I am working to graft Criollo budwood to rootstock of the four existing Criollo phenotypes found on the property. First, seeds for the rootstocks are collected from the existing agroforestry demonstration area made of Trinitario cacao, which was planted about 15 years ago. Once the Trinitario seeds are collected, they are germinated, planted in bags, and ready for grafting within 3 months. We will then move the new Sapling trees to the farm approximately 6 months later. Criollo tends to grow a little slower than typical cacao varieties, so we expect to graft them 3-5 months after germination. They should be ready for transplanting after an additional 7 months.

Tree Species in the Agroforestry Plots

Some of the hardwood tree species that we are using in the agroforestry farm are: Barba Jolote (Cojoba Arborea), Mahogany (Swietenia mahagoni), and Jobillo (Astronium graveolens). The leaves of these trees are spaced so as to let ample light penetrate to the leaves of the grafted cacao in the understory. Certain plants have also been selected because they help with soil fertility (soil carbon, fixing nitrogen, phosphorus content, and soil aggregation) these include Madre de cacao (Gliricidia sepium), Bri-bri (Inga edulis), Tiger bush (erythirina latissima ), Pigeon Pea, (Cajanus cajan, Bananas (Musa acuminata), Plantain (Musa paradisiaca), and Coconut (Cocos nucifera). All of these tree species are dispersed around 5,354 grafted plants, most of which are the Purple to Orange phenotype. The BFREE phenotypes were named by Elmer Tzalam and refer to the color of the pods at two stages while young and growing. Therefore, the “Purple to Orange” Phenotype is purple when it is young and orange when it is ripe. The total area being managed at the moment is around 3.74Ha.

Biodiversity in the Agroforestry Plots

The cacao agroforestry is showing signs of increased biodiversity presence. I have spoken to BFREE’s Head Ranger, Mr. Sipiriano Canti, and he has been setting some camera traps in the agroforestry area. He mentioned that the cameras have captured images of all five wild cats in Belize (Jaguar, Puma, Margay, Jaguarundi, Ocelot), Baird’s Tapir, agouti, Tyra, and Kinkajou, among other species. During the day, there are many species of birds that feed on insects and nectar on the farm. Some nests have also been observed in the madre de cacao trees. I believe that we will see more positive outcomes from this initiative, and I am very excited to be a part of this extraordinary project.

BFREE Fellows Participate in Ranger Weekend

BFREE’s Science and Education Fellowship program is a two-year immersive training opportunity for recent Belizean junior college graduates who exhibit leadership potential combined and a clear interest in the conservation of the country’s natural resources. Each Fellows are assigned one of three focal areas based on their interest and experience, Wildlife conservation – Hicatee Conservation, Sustainable Agriculture – Cacao Agroforestry or Protected Areas.

Lenardo Ash (Sustainable Agriculture/Cacao Agroforestry) and Jonathan Dubon (Wildlife Conservation/Hicatee Conservation) are BFREE’s current fellows and have been learning a lot in their focal area. They also have the opportunity to take place in unique professional development opportunities during their two years. This may include trainings, conference attendance, presenting information to groups, and various field experiences.

With strict restrictions due to the pandemic, there were few opportunities for Fellows to travel during 2020. We decided to start the new year off in 2021 by creating training opportunities right here at BFREE. Lenardo and Jonathan joined BFREE Park Rangers, Sipriano Canti and Apolonio Pop for a ranger training weekend. Friday afternoon, the team hiked to their camp spot about two miles from the main facilities. They set up camp and then immediately went to deploy camera traps in the area. The weekend was spent exploring the properties’ many trails while monitoring camera traps and searching for tracks and other signs of wildlife along the way.

The Fellows learned the basics of surviving in the jungle with skills like building a fire and locating water vines. Canti described traditional uses of plants and trees found along the way. The team also updated and posted Private Property signs throughout the area. They explored creeks and lagoons in the area while discovering the many types of habitat that exist within the BFREE property.

BFREE Fellow, Jonathan Dubon during the Ranger Weekend in January 2021.

Some highlights for Jonathan were visiting a pretty lagoon where they saw an Agami Heron. Canti named it “Live Lagoon” because of the little spring that supplies the lagoon with fresh water. Jonathan was also excited to capture an image of a male Tapir on one of the camera traps they set. Volunteers and interns have always loved Ranger Weekends at BFREE, and we are excited to extend this opportunity to BFREE Fellows for the coming years!