Spring Health Assessment 2020

Between February 28th and March 1st, a total of 341 turtles (45 adults in the breeding population and 296 captive hatched animals) 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, to look for follicles and eggs in breeding-size females and to PIT-tag animals.

Ultimately, we would like all turtles at the HCRC to be identified using a scute notching system and also a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag. A PIT tag is a small radio transponder that contains a specific code, which allows individual turtles to be assigned a unique 10 or 15 digit alphanumeric identification number. Unlike acoustic tags that actively send out a signal, they are “passive” and do not require a battery. Rather than the tag transmitting a signal, the tag scanner (or reader) sends out a radio frequency and when a tag is within range, it will relay the identification code back to the receiver. The lack of a battery is the greatest advantage of the PIT tag since it allows for the production of much smaller tags that can be used on smaller organisms, which should last the life of the turtle. 

As in past assessments, two days were dedicated to measuring, giving health checks and ultrasounds to adult and subadult turtles. A day and half was dedicated to PIT-tagging all of the captive born turtles in the 2018 cohort as well as the ones from the 2017 cohort that had yet to be tagged.  

We were thrilled to have a great group of return volunteers from last year’s spring assessment, as well as new participants from Jacksonville Zoo, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, and recent graduates of Independence Junior College in Belize. The team worked tirelessly over three days to ensure that every turtle received the attention it needed.

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 (BWRC); Glendy Delcid, BWRC; Cayle Pearson, Supervisor of Herpetology, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens; Meredith Persky, Veterinarian, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens; return volunteers, Doris Dimmitt, Rodney Dimmitt, Tim Gregory, and Emily Gregory; and new volunteers, Jesse Rope, Jonathan Dubon and Ajay Williams 

We would like to express our gratitude to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for their continued financial support spring health assessments at the HCRC and to the Turtle Survival Alliance for supplying the PIT tags and associated equipment. Finally, a special thanks is in order to Doris and Rod Dimmitt for supplying Tom Pop with new waders to keep him warm and safe from leeches!

Bringing BFREE to You!

Read a full update from BFREE on the latest during COVID-19 here: https://mailchi.mp/225f4bd263bf/bringingbfreetoyou-2447813

For most of us who remain home, trying our best to flatten the curve, cabin fever can set in quick. Many of you have reached out daydreaming about swimming in the Bladen River or hiking the BFREE boundary line. In response, we have decided that if you can’t be at BFREE, then we will bring BFREE to you!

Over the next month, we will be sharing a new educational resource or activity every day on social media. Activities you can do on your own or with kids, as well as videos of virtual hikes at BFREE, the wildlife, the scenery, cooking classes, challenges, meditations, and so much more!

Our goal is to bring positivity, education, love, hope, and BFREE to your homes! Be sure to share your creations or participation with all of us online using #BringingBFREEtoyou


Day One, March 23: Make bird feeder with an upcycled plastic bottle!
“Protect Birds: Be the Solution to Plastic Pollution!”  is the theme of this month’s celebration of Migratory Birds at BFREE. For our first educational activity, let’s make our own bird feeders out of recycled plastic bottles. Reusing your single-use plastic is just one way we can reduce pollution harmful to wildlife. 

Check out this link for ideas on how to upcycle your plastic bottles:
http://www.bystephanielynn.com/2012/04/25-things-to-do-with-empty-plastic-bottles-water-soda-bottle-crafts-saturday-inspiration-ideas.html

Make your own hummingbird nectar for your upcycled feeder using 1 part sugar to 4 parts water. Recipe and directions by Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute:
https://nationalzoo.si.edu/migratory-birds/hummingbird-nectar-recipe


Day Two, March 24: Imagine you’re a bird meditation

Day two, Bringing BFREE to you with a short meditation created for all ages. Take a deep breath and imagine you are a bird. Close your eyes as you listen to the words or keep them open to take a virtual tour of the BFREE garden. The bird meditation was created to help bring positivity, education, love, hope, and BFREE to your homes during these uncertain times.

Read by Nelly Cadle, inspired by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology BirdSleuth curriculum. Filmed at the BFREE Biological Field Station & Privately Protected Area in Belize. BFREE is sharing daily educational resources, activities, and virtual experiences from our Field Station in Belize over the next month. We are in this together, #stayhome


Day Three, March 25 : Collect Leaves and Compare!

Day Three, Bringing BFREE to you with a short outdoor activity. If you can, take a walk outside and collect a few leaves from non-harmful plants. Sort them by size, color, and texture. Now compare. What did you collect? Can you name the type of trees or plants they came from?

Taking a moment to be in nature can help reduce feelings of anger, fear, and stress. It not only makes us feel better emotionally, but it contributes to our physical wellbeing, reduces blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, and the productions of stress hormones.

Will you join us in this short exercise to get outside in nature?

Here are some leaves we collected today at BFREE. What did you collect? Share your images, #BringingBFREEtoyou

Our goal is to bring positivity, education, love, hope, and BFREE to your homes! Over the next month, we will be sharing a new educational resource, activity, or virtual experience from BFREE every day on social media. We are in this together, #stayhome.


Day Four, March 26: Time-lapse drive to BFREE

Day four, virtually bringing BFREE to you with a time-lapse of the drive from the Southern Highway to the BFREE Field Station and Privately Protected Area along the 6-mile entrance road. The road begins in open savannah, later oak-pine scrub, and moist tropical broadleaf forest. About 3/4’s of the way into the entrance road the truck passes by the Bladen Nature Reserve observation post. Filmed by Alex Birkman, BFREE Intern in July 2019.

If you can’t be at BFREE, then we will bring BFREE to you!


Day Five, March 27: Belize Culture and Heritage!

Day five, Bringing BFREE to you with the theme, BELIZE! Take a moment to dive into the incredible culture, music, and history of Belize. 

The Belize Living Heritage website was developed by the Institute for Social and Cultural Research (ISCR) of the National Institute of Culture and History (NICH) in partnership with local communities, living heritage practitioners, cultural organizations and other stakeholders. Educators and parents can find learning activities and sample lesson plans based on living heritage. 
Click the link below and you will find word search and coloring pages to download for kids. 

http://www.belizelivingheritage.org/ich-education

Click ‘Resources,’ then ‘Cultural Celebration Series’ to find videos of celebrations around Belize. Click ‘Our Inventory,’ to find descriptions of culinary, dancy and craftsmanship traditions. More information on integrating living heritage in educational lessons can be found here: http://www.belizeanstudies.com


Day Six, March 28: Lizards!

Jacob Marlin holds a juvenile Old Man Lizard or Helmeted Basilisk which he found on a walk at BFREE last week.

Helmeted Basilisks have some unique behaviors to scare off predators. First they use camouflage—they can resemble lichen with spots forming on their skin when resting and can change color rapidly. They can freeze their body and become completely still. Next they compress their body, erect their crest, expand their gular (throat) pouch and bob their head. By doing this, they hope to appear bigger and deter the predator. If all else fails, they will attack and bite ferociously!

Learn more about cool lizards like this one and other wildlife by visiting  https://eol.org/pages/35565  

Our goal is to bring positivity, education, love, hope, and BFREE to your homes! Over the next month, we will be sharing a new educational resource, activity, or virtual experience from BFREE every day on social media. We are in this together. #bringingbfreetoyou 


Day Seven, March 29:

Day seven, bringing BFREE to you with educational materials from USFWS Migratory Birds. Let’s all take a moment to appreciate migratory birds! Visit their website 3billionbirds.org for more resources.
 


Day Eight, March 30:

Day 8, Bringing BFREE to you with bird masks! These DIY masks can be made with just about anything you have on hand, such a fun way to get creative. If you need some inspiration, listen to the “imagine you’re a bird” meditation we shared last Monday and then make a mask based off of what you imagined! Or check out the endless how-to’s online such as this one: https://www.paperchase.com/the-journal/bird-craft-mask/

This video is from Church of Christ Primary School in Independence Village when BFREE visited a few weeks ago to talk about World Migratory Birds Day and the effects of plastic. After making their bird masks the class played the migration game where students played the role of a migrating birds and tried to reach their final destination but were faced with obstacles similar to the ones birds face including glass windows, cats, kids with stones and hurricanes, all played by their classmates.


Day Nine, March 31:

Day 9, Bringing BFREE to you with backyard birding! It’s the last day of our celebration of migratory birds for the month of March.

To celebrate, take a moment to step outside and appreciate the sounds and sights of our feathered friends around you! If you’re new to bird watching you can start off with a notepad and pencil. Take a few minutes each day to write down what you hear or see. If you’re ready to take it a step further, download the free Merlin app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
 
In the app, you can enter the size, color, and location of your bird-is it on a branch, on the ground or on a fence post. The app then generates a list of options to help you identify your bird!
If you take a moment to step outside and go bird watching today, share a photo with us 

Day Ten, April 1:

Happy April 1st! Day 10, Bringing BFREE to You with one of the most relaxing and peaceful videos taken in the Bladen River at BFREE by a visiting graduate student, Emily Buege.
 
If you’ve been daydreaming of days spent cooling off in this river, sit back and turn the volume up for a meditative like experience that will take you straight to BFREE. Featured fauna includes black belt cichlids, blue-eyed cichlids, firemouth cichlids, false firemouth cichlids, yellow belly cichlids, tetras, mollies, machaca, a neotropical river otter, invasive African tilapia, and others. The neotropical river otter makes a quick appearance at 3:30 (with slow-mo instant replay!)
 
Thank you Emily for this incredible video! #BringingBFREEtoYou


Day Eleven, April 2:

Day 11, Bringing BFREE to You with a Facebook Live reading of The Adventures of Herbert the Hikatee, written by Gianni Martinez, a teacher in Belize City. BFREE’s Field Course Leader, Nelly Cadle will be reading the book from her home in Belize! Please join us at 1PM in Belize (noon PST/3 EST) for this fun storytime! #bringingbfreetoyou #savethehicatee


Day Twelve, April 3:

Day 12, Bringing BFREE to You with hicatee activities! If you joined us for our live storytime reading of Adventures of Herbert the Hikatee yesterday, continue the turtle theme today and watch the 16-minute short documentary, “Hope for the Hicatee,” read more about this critically endangered species in the Fact Sheet, or if you have access to a printer, print out the activity sheets for kids.All of our Hicatee resources can be found here:https://www.bfreebz.org/hicatee-conservation-educational-resources/


Day Thirteen, April 4:

Day 13, Bringing BFREE to You with outdoor gardening! We have been busy at BFREE over the last week building raised garden beds and planting a vegetable garden outside the Dining Room. Next time we see you at BFREE we will have fresh vegetables aplenty!What a great time to use things you already have to make your own indoor or outdoor garden! Check out the links below for inspiration.

Planters: https://craft.theownerbuildernetwork.co/2015/03/19/plastic-bottle-planters/

Seed Starter Pots:https://www.diyncrafts.com/10038/repurpose/recycle-plastic-bottles-into-self-watering-seed-starter-pots

Vertical Gardens:https://www.thisiscolossal.com/2013/02/urban-vertical-garden-built-from-hundreds-of-recycled-soda-bottles/


Day Fourteen, April 5:

Day 14, Bringing BFREE to you with Nature Relaxation to get your morning started off right!
Is there anything more relaxing than nature sounds and videos? Our Deputy Director, Heather Barrett, took this short video of a Liana seed blowing in the wind while birds sing in the background.
I only wish this video was an hour-long so I could play it to fall asleep to!


Day Fifteen, April 6:

Kicking off the Field Season

The beginning of the year means the start of a brand new field season for BFREE. Kutztown University helped kick-off 2020 with an incredible group of 15 students and two instructors ready to embark on a two-week adventure in Belize. The group arrived on New Year’s Eve and spent the evening with Ernesto and Aurora Saqui in Maya Center Village where they participated in a traditional ceremony to welcome in the new year. From there the group spent eight nights at BFREE giving them enough time to really make the jungle feel like a home away from home. In addition to the week-long stay at BFREE, the group ventured to the coast for three nights in Placencia. We were excited to partner with our friends at the Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC) for a presentation led by Dr. Marisa Tellez, Executive Director, and Co-Founder. The group joined Dr. Tellez and a local boat captain for an evening on the water looking for crocs. This was a great opportunity for our group to learn more about research and educational outreach taking place in southern Belize.

SUNY Potsdam Student Group Photo

The next group to arrive was from SUNY Potsdam. Led by Dr. Glenn Johnson, the group spent an entire week at BFREE. They developed independent research projects which is one of the main activities for our field courses. The students generally spend their first day at BFREE thinking of a research question before starting to collect data. Below are a frew of the research projects that stuents have worked on so far this year.

  • Are insects attracted to different colors at different heights along the observation tower?
  • What is the dragonfly diversity at BFREE?
  • Are insects more attracted to cow dung or tuna?
  • Are leaf cutter ants more active in the day or night?

A highlight of SUNY Potsdam’s time at BFREE occurred on their first morning with a tapir sighting along the Bladen River. The group was just finishing breakfast when they got a call from Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, who spotted. Everyone was able to arrive in time to watch the Tapir as it slowly moved along the rivers’ edge. Students also had the opportunity to learn the traditions of basket-weaving using Jippy Joppa palm with Ofelia and cooking on the fire hearth with Edwardo.

Birdwatching with IJC

Last weekend we hosted our first student group from Belize in 2020. Led by Natural Resource Management teacher, Ms. Abigal Parham-Garbutt, Independence Junior College brought a group of 37 including instructors and students from Accounting, Agribusiness, Information Technology, and Natural Resources Management departments. Ms. Parham-Garbutt first visited BFREE in 2006 as a student herself when she was enrolled at the University of Belize. In 2011, she brought her first student group to BFREE and has continued to do so ever since. Students learned about the majestic Harpy Eagle, Central American River Turtle (Hickatee), Cacao based Agroforestry, small mammals, fruit phenology, migratory and native birds, insects, and snakes. Ms. Parham-Garbutt said, “Experiences like these are certainly one of the best ways to engage students in understanding how the forest works, how people can co-exist with nature and how blessed we are in Belize.”


Let’s Celebrate World Migratory Bird Day in Belize! 

Join BFREE in the great world-wide celebration of migratory birds during the entire month of March!

Below are educational resources and additional information for you to use in your classrooms. We encourage celebratory events throughout the month of March such as educational presentations, cleanups, and other habitat restorations as well as bird walks, and creative art activities

Educational Resources:

Coloring Page
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
Make a Bird Mask
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
Bird Count Data Form
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
BFREE Bird List
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
WMBD Facebook Photo
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
Migration Game
CLICK TO DOWNLOAD
Wings of Hope Film
CLICK TO VIEW

Classroom Activity Ideas:

  • Host or join a trash clean up, this can be done around your school, in your community or along the beach! Bonus challenge, have class competitions to collect the most trash or create an art project with the plastic collected.
  • Download the bird count and bring your class outside to record data from around your schoolyard.
  • Have a school-wide plastic-free challenge week. Challenge your students to go a full week without using any single-use plastic at school! 
  • Host a movie party, watch Wing of Hope, Yochi, or Birds of Belize to get to know more about the incredible birds in our country.
  • Share Migratory Bird Day in Belize on social media! Share the Facebook banner or post on Instagram and tag @bfreebz so we can see your activities!

Scheduled Events:

  • February 22: “Protect Birds: Be the Solution to Plastic Pollution” Presentation to students of Natural Resource Management from Independence Junior College
  • March 1 – 31:  Join BFREE in celebrating World Migratory Bird Day in Belize the entire month of March
  • March 4 – 6: BFREE presentations and activities for Primary and High Schools in Independence Village
  • March 14: Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC) and Next Gen Croc Club will host a beach clean up in Seine Bright

What is World Migratory Bird Day:

World Migratory Bird Day in the Americas is coordinated by the organization, Environment for the Americas, which promotes bilingual educational materials and information about birds and bird conservation. Environment for the Americas celebrates the migration of nearly 350 bird species between their nesting habitats in North America and wintering grounds in Latin America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.

Now in its 26th year, World Migratory Bird Day (WMBD) has grown from a one-day event to hundreds of projects and programs year-round and encourage individuals and organizations to join them in selecting their own date to celebrate WMBD. BFREE has selected the entire month of March to celebrate WMBD in Belize and we invite you to join us!

We are inspired by the phase-out plan to ban single-use plastic in Belize that became effective on 15 January 2020. The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries, Forestry, the Environment, Sustainable Development and Immigration, Hon. Goodwin Hulse, signed into law the Environmental Protection (Pollution from Plastics) Regulations, 2020 that is set to reduce plastic and styrofoam pollution through the phasing out of single-use plastics in Belize as a control measure to protect the terrestrial and marine environment from harmful plastic contamination.

With this in mind, we at BFREE are celebrating WMBD by embracing the message, “Protect birds: Be the solution to plastic pollution.” 

We invite you, our partners country-wide to join BFREE in tackling the challenges of plastic pollution in the environment by sharing with your classrooms the many ways that plastic can harm birds and by offering some ideas for ways that we can reduce our use of plastic items.


The Truth Behind Plastic Pollution:

Since plastic was introduced in the 1950s, an estimated 8.3 billion metric tons have been created. Only about 9% of plastic materials are recycled, leaving more than 6.3 billion metric tons of plastics in landfills or polluting the environment. “One of the main types of debris in the marine environment today is plastic. We know fishing gear, plastic bags, bottle caps, utensils, and other plastic pieces are entangling and being ingested by birds. Plastics harm birds in marine environments, as well as other habitats. As human use of plastics grows, so too does the amount of plastic pollution that invades most ecosystems around the globe. “Plastic debris such as fishing line poses a serious risk of entangling birds, which can entrap them and cause serious injury,” says Dr. Susan Bonfield, Director of Environment for the Americas. Migratory birds also have a high risk of directly ingesting plastics. It’s been estimated that 80% of sea and shorebirds have consumed foam, pellets, thread, and other items. In addition, small bits of plastic, known as microplastics, pose a hazard to birds and smaller organisms throughout the food chain due to the toxins they concentrate in the environment.

The Spectacular Journey of Birds:

In addition to raising awareness about issues important to bird conservation, World Migratory Bird Day is also a celebration of the spectacular journeys that migratory birds take as they travel between nesting and non-breeding sites around the world. Global partners at the Convention on Migratory Species in Bonn, Germany recognize that “World Migratory Bird Day joins our voices as one for the protection of the birds we share. With raised awareness of threats such as plastic pollution to birds, it is our opportunity to take action by making changes that help birds, whether personal or more broadly.” Although WMBD is traditionally celebrated in Canada and the U.S. on the second Saturday in May, in reality every day is bird day, and programs, festivals, and other events occur throughout the year, whenever it works best for organizers—and the birds. “Ultimately, the goal of WMBD is to connect people to nature through birds,” says Miguel Matta, WMBD Coordinator in Latin America.


About BFREE:

The Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE) operates a biological field station in the rainforest of southern Belize. Our mission is “to conserve the biodiversity and cultural heritage of Belize.” We strive to successfully integrate scientific research, environmental education,  conservation, and create sustainable development opportunities for alternative livelihoods for Belizeans.

About Environment for the Americas:

WMBD in the Americas is coordinated by Environment for the Americas, which provides bilingual educational materials and information about birds and bird conservation throughout the Americas. Their programs inspire children and adults to get outdoors, learn about birds, and take part in their conservation. To learn more about migratory bird habitats, download WMBD educational and promotional materials in Spanish and English, and search for activities planned in your area, visit http://www.migratorybirdday.org/

Miguel Matta, Latin America World Migratory Bird Day Coordinator, Environment for the Americas, Boulder, CO, USA. Email: mmatta@environmentamericas.org

Aiming for Conservation

Growing up in the south of Belize you develop a sense of uncertainty. I was raised in the Mayan subsistence farming community of San Pedro Columbia. This community has long-shared rudimentary hunting and fishing practices, that are now replaced by modern and destructive gears. A place where slash and burn is still practiced by most farmers, and the construction of logging roads has opened opportunities for overhunting and deforestation. Lamentably this rural community is adjacent to a forest reserve.

At present, my life revolves around conservation. I studied Natural Resource Management at the University of Belize, and I am currently a science fellow at BFREE. This organization has given me the opportunity to have a leading argronomist, Erick Ak, as a mentor. We are focused on restoring degraded rainforest with shade-loving criollo cacao. Our hopes of resembling the nautral rainforest strata with cacao and permaent shade trees is becoming a reality. My responsibilites include the collection of cacao growth data in the selected fields, and taking care of the nursery. We also collect GPS coordinates for the criollo cacao trees dispersed naturally in the rainforest. Our next plan is to start with the characterization of the four different varieties of criollo that exist on BFREE’s property, as little is known about the unique plant.

So as communities grow and continue to make unsustainable demands on natural systems, it is my hope
that our research ideas can be transplanted in farming communities. These ideas can be implemented
on farming areas that were abandoned. And since cacao has a very high demand, this can be an
alternative source of income for these farming families. This in turn would be beneficial for the posterity
of both man and nature.

Shadowing visiting university students has allowed me to meet students with the same enthusiasm towards conservation. These experiences have made me realize the different values other people have. I have plans to further my studies and help persuade people to be stewards of the environment. People
change, and I hope they change for the better.

Ranger Training at BFREE

The new year started off on the right foot with a workshop for BFREE park rangers in Basic Navigation
Skills. Dr. Rob Klinger, BFREE Board Member and Ecologist, spent a morning teaching concepts and
methods associated with navigation using compasses. Because BFREE park rangers are required to
patrol all areas within the 1,153 acre privately protected area, this training is essential for their
confidence in navigating the property with authority. Sipriano Canti, Marcos Kuk, and Pedro Teul made
up the team of rangers who participated in the day-long workshop.

Rob Klinger and Marcos Kuk using a compass in the BFREE Classroom.


After completing the morning’s lessons and testing their abilities, Rob moved the team into the field
where they were able to immediately put their knowledge into action. The rangers joined biology
students from Kutztown University in the 100-meter square cacao grid where they verified the accuracy
of coordinates for the small mammal community study before students placed each trap. This attention
to accurate positioning ensures the grid of 100 flagged points don’t shift with the use by each class
which in turn helps guarantee that the data collected is as consistent as possible over time.


The BFREE park rangers benefited greatly from the workshop and from the efforts of Dr. Klinger. We, at
BFREE, would like to express our gratitude to Dr. Klinger for offering this important and timely training.

Designing a Chocolate Bar Package: Semester-long Project with UNCW

As an organization whose mission includes a strong focus on education, we are always excited
for opportunities to collaborate with high school and university classes in semester-long
projects.

Last fall, we were privileged to work with a class of aspiring graphic designers at the
University of North Carolina Wilmington, ART 360. Led by Ned Irvine, Associate Professor of Studio Arts
and Coordinator of Digital Arts, the group of 11 students, individually created concepts and
designs for a unique graphic identity and packaging for a forest-friendly chocolate bar.
Students were required to research BFREE, our conservation work and the craft chocolate
industry in general, after which US for BFREE staff participated in several “Client Meetings”
throughout the semester. During these meetings, the students asked questions, presented idea
boards and mock-ups in order to move toward their final design.


Many great ideas and impressive designs were generated and it was fascinating to navigate
through the multi-tiered process of developing a package. We aren’t quite ready to release a
final version so stay tuned. Thanks to the students in ART 360 for your creativity and
enthusiasm and special thanks to Ned Irvine for taking initiative on this project!

PHOTO: Students from UNCW ART 360 class pose for a photo.

In Pursuit of Hicatee in Belize by Day Ligon

The Hicatee, as Dermatemys mawii is known in parts of its range, is truly a unique turtle.
Although fossil records indicate that closely related species once occurred across Central
America and Europe, Hicatee remain as the only living representatives of a formerly species-rich
family of turtles. It is a large turtle, sometimes exceeding 22 kilograms. Despite its large size, it
is streamlined and, thanks to huge webbed feet, is extremely fast in the water. On land, however,
Hicatee are out of their element. They struggle to elevate their heads against gravity, and even
short walks across dry ground may leave their shells abraded with small cuts and scuffs.
Historically, this large denizen of rivers, lagoons, and mangrove swamps was common in parts
of Guatemala, Belize, and southern Mexico. In many communities throughout its range, Hicatee
are culturally important, not just as a frequently seen and admired inhabitant of the rivers along
which many communities have been built, but also as a culinary delicacy that is sought after for
holiday feasts and other celebrations. Unfortunately, its popularity at the dinner table is likely the
single greatest factor that is driving population declines. Today, few populations remain in
Mexico or Guatemala, and even those in the relative stronghold of Belize have declined
precipitously in recent decades.

Just how much have Hicatee populations declined? Everyone with experience with the
species seems to agree that declines are alarmingly great, but it’s also hard to put a number on.
Excellent research has been conducted that has generated insights about the species ecology,
reproduction, distribution and relative abundance, but since the 1980s efforts have been
intermittent and seldom generated more than a qualitative assessments of population sizes or
demographics. This isn’t for lack of interest or effort; animals that have the capacity to move
long distances and occupy open systems such as rivers are extremely challenging to count!

Fortunately, technological and analytical advances have made the solutions to this
problem more attainable. In spring 2019, members of the Turtle Ecology Lab at Missouri State
University teamed up with partners at the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental
Education (BFREE) to determine the feasibility of generating population estimates. In five
weeks of field work, 193 Hicatee in three different populations were captured, weighed,
measured, and permanently marked for future identification. Additionally, a subset of turtles in a
closed lagoon system were equipped with GPS tags and sonic transmitters that will produce
information about their movements. These data will be especially interesting as the rainy season
commences, the lagoon reconnects to the Belize River, and turtles have the option of either
staying within the lagoon or venturing out into flooded forest or even to the river. This
information about the movement patterns of Hicatee will be put to use in 2020 when mark-
recapture efforts will be conducted to generate some of the first precise population estimates for
the species. These estimates, when generated in open rivers, become much more accurate when
typical movement patterns are known and can be included in population models.

In addition to calculating the size of populations of Hicatee in both open and closed
populations, as well as in hunted and protected areas, work in 2020 will benefit in other ways
from the preliminary research conducted in 2019. For instance, growth rates in captivity are
known thanks to research conducted at BFREE. However, little is known of growth rates in the
wild; by recapturing turtles that were first measured in 2019, not only will calculating growth rates across a range of size classes be possible, but so too will assessing the sexual maturity of
the many subadult turtles that were captured provide information about size at maturity.

All of this information is but a drop in the bucket in comparison to what remains to be
discovered about the fascinating Hicatee, but every new piece of life history data can help to
inform conservation efforts on the species’ behalf. And of course, field research efforts such as
were undertaken in 2019 require a tremendous network of support. Participants from the Turtle
Ecology Lab at Missouri State University included Denise Thompson, Donald McKnight
(currently at James Cook University), and Ethan Hollender. Thomas Pop and Jaren Serano joined
the effort from BFREE with tremendous support from Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett. Elyse
Ellsworth from the Siler Lab at University of Oklahoma and Hunter Howell from University of
Miami also put in many long hours in the field. Yamira Novelo (Wildlife Conservation Society)
helped both in the field and with some logistics. Albert Gill lent his assistance and knowledge of
the area during work at Spanish Creek. Additional assistance was provided by Felicia Cruz and
Gilberto Young in the Belize Fisheries Department, Jeff Robison and Roberto Flores at Yalbac
Ranch, and Alan Jeal at Gallon Jug Ranch. Finally, this conservation project would have gone
nowhere without assistance from Bart Harmsen and valuable advice from Thomas Rainwater and
John Polisar. Reversing the population declines Hicatee have experienced will require a
community effort, and work thus far has proved that a dedicated network of people with a
passion for saving this charismatic but critically endangered species already exists and is already
working toward this goal.

Photo Credits:  Day Ligon and Ethan Hollander

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.


GUEST BLOG BY 2019 FALL HEALTH ASSESSMENT VOLUNTEER

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.