Around the world, the question is being asked: How does the pandemic impact threatened species and protected areas? The answer seems to be a resounding: We don’t know, but we suspect in some good ways and some bad ways. Wildlife and protected areas are likely benefited by less human presence and disturbance and also negatively impacted by unregulated use and illegal resource extraction including illegal poaching.
We know that the pandemic has led to the closure of many protected and conserved areas around the world. The consequences of closed protected areas are many and include staff layoffs and loss of livelihoods, suspension of critical research and monitoring programs, suspension and or decrease of ranger patrols resulting in possible illegal and environmentally damaging activities.
In Belize, both terrestrial and marine protected areas have seen periods of closure in short bursts since the pandemic was declared in April. The additional stress of dry season fires in April and May across the country and the early advent of hurricane season has made these challenges even greater. Protected Areas staff struggle to continue responding to these natural disasters while also continuing their daily work with less mobility due to Covid-19 restrictions and fewer staff.
At BFREE, our park rangers feel the stress of those restrictions yet maintain their important tasks in spite of the challenges. Throughout the pandemic, they have continued to come to work 24/7, patrolling the 1,153 acre property and its boundaries which connect us to nearly 1.5 million acres of lowland tropical rainforest.
Rangers and BFREE staff have also continued to document wildlife and weather patterns as part of our long-term monitoring programs. We are entering our fifth year of an Agami Heron nesting population study in collaboration with the international Agami Heron Conservation Working Group. In partnership with Jungle Encounters, Inc, we continue to collect data on wild cats, specifically Jaguarundis, Ocelots and Margays, using camera trapping technology. Weather data has been collected since 1995 and continues both in hand-written form and via Hoboware weather stations situated throughout the property. Additionally, observational data is collected on the movements of Scarlet macaws and Harpy eagles in the area.
Monitoring wildlife will help us understand which animals utilize which pieces of the property and whether their populations are increasing, remaining stable or declining. Similarly, monitoring weather helps us understand how Belize’s climate changes over time.
By continuing to do the important work of patrolling the BFREE privately protected area and monitoring wildlife and climate, we not only protect the land around us, we contribute important information that helps better guide conservation policy and interventions over the long-term.
Six years after the first Hicatee egg was laid and hatched at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) at BFREE, we released 145 hatchlings turtles into the wild – representing the first significant release of captive bred and hatched Hicatee in Belize. The release not only provided the opportunity to increase the wild population, but also and most significantly to conduct a comparative early-life stage growth study of the 2020 cohort of 185 Hicatee hatchlings. Turtles were randomly assigned groups which were then designated for 1) release into a natural closed aquatic system with no other Hicatee present, 2) release into a natural closed aquatic system where other Hicatee are present, 3) release into an natural open aquatic system where other Hicatee are present, 4) release into the HCRC rearing pond at BFREE, and 5) kept in tanks indoors at the BFREE lab. After, eight weeks, turtles are recaptured, weighed, measured, and data collected on a number of parameters to compare the conditions of each group to determine overall health.
One of the release sites located adjacent to a wildlife sanctuary a nearby village provided the opportunity to get local community members involved. Representatives from BFREE, Belize Turtle Ecology Lab, and the Belize Fisheries Department met village leaders and a small group of school children one morning in early August. The organizations introduced the community to the captive-breeding program taking place at BFREE, presented on current Hicatee research, reviewed Belize’s laws pertaining to Hicatee, and described current outreach efforts including the upcoming fourth annual Hicatee Awareness Month in October. After the presentation, the group walked to the river’s edge where they released a dozen of the critically endangered captive-bred turtles into the wild.
The release and the associated outreach event represent a major milestone in our ongoing effort to save the Hicatee turtle from extinction. These milestones could not have been reached without the ongoing support of our project partner, the Turtle Survival Alliance. Their belief and engagement in Hicatee conservation efforts has allowed the project to continue moving forward even in the most difficult of times.
Now in its third year, the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship program’s goal is to provide opportunities for exceptionally qualified early-career conservationists. Current Fellows are Lenardo (Leo) Ash who has been assigned to work in the cacao agroforestry program and Jonathan Dubon who is assigned to work at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC).
As Fellows, they learn all aspects of the general operations of their assigned program and are additionally responsible for data collection, research and reporting. The Fellows also have the opportunity to work directly with visiting researchers and field course groups from Belize and abroad. One of Jonathan’s goals in the coming months is to help to improve and organize the extensive database for the HCRC and to help implement better protocols for data collection, recording, storage and use. This is a much-needed and critical task as we continue to gather more information on our existing and ever-growing population of Hicatee turtles.
As with all things, the pandemic has greatly changed our plans for the 2020 Fellowship Program; without visitors to the field station, there are less opportunities to gain fresh perspectives. We’ve tried to use the time to take advantage of the resources we have in front of us. Along with other staff, Fellows are participating in Herpetology 101 and under Jacob Marlin’s tutelage, are learning to name and identify the many reptiles found around BFREE. Also, Fellows are developing research projects in their area of work which they will focus on over the next year.
We are excited and motivated by these young conservationists. Their interest inspires us to dream bigger. Our goal is to grow this program in the coming years, so that more Belizeans can participate and receive specialized training at BFREE.
The Fellows take their roles seriously and look forward to making the most of the opportunity while gaining critical skills along the way. When asked what it means to be a next-generation environmentalist in Belize, Leo thoughtfully replied, “I believe it means understanding current issues affecting the planet, and helping to make changes before they become irreversible.
The Bunkhouse has served as the main dormitory for guests visiting BFREE since its completion in 1998 when it began as a 40’x12’ two-room structure. In 2008, it was expanded to double the original size and consequently doubled occupancy sleeping up to 24 people. Located just over 200m from the river and situated under the hulking shade of a massive 140-ft Ceiba tree, the bunkhouse is the first stop for most visitors as they arrive at BFREE.
Bunkhouse renovations have been scheduled since last year and were made possible by a generous donor who specifically designated funds for infrastructure improvements. While we have had to reassess many priorities this year due to COVID-19 with its sudden and extreme impact on our field season, we are grateful to be able to move forward with the much-needed improvements to this essential structure. It is important to us that we are ready for our guests as soon as they can return and that includes comfortable accommodations!
The new layout will create six private rooms, each sleeping up to six guests, and will include a 10’x32′ observation deck facing the Ceiba tree which will serve as a great spot to view wildlife like Harpy eagles. The bunkhouse is being designed to accommodate visitors of all kinds, not just student groups, and to create additional common space for guests to relax together. The staff has thus far completed the first step of the renovation which was to pour the concrete footers. They are now in phase two, dismantling everything from the floor up while also constructing the frame for the expansion.
One of the most exciting aspects of the renovation is that this building is almost completely “zero waste.” The bunkhouse is being dismantled board by board and each piece of material is being evaluated to be reused; including boards, nails, and the roofing. If the material is not reused on the bunkhouse it will be repurposed for other projects throughout the property. With the exception of the new roofing and tongue and groove flooring, which were purchased, the other material is coming straight from the BFREE property. We salvaged three dead trees from the property and all have been milled into lumber by chainsaw.
We are so incredibly excited about the improved accommodations and we look forward to seeing the place full of guests again!
BFREE is pleased to introduce our newest Science & Education Fellow, Jonathan Dubon. Jonathan grew up in Independence Village about 20 miles east of BFREE and has known from an early age that he wanted a career that would include his passions for field experience and outdoor adventures. This passion grows from visiting his Grandma’s farm near Punta Gorda as a child where he has many fond memories of exploring her land and being exposed to nature. Because of this childhood experience and influence from his brother who is also involved in conservation, Jonathan went on to study Natural Resource Management at Independence Junior College. He graduated with his Associate’s Degree in June 2019 and with the highest honors in his department.
Jonathan’s first visit to BFREE was on a school field trip with Independence Junior College in February 2019. Jonathan says, “I fell in love with the place and it’s environment – at that very moment I knew I wanted to come back. I like everything about being at BFREE including the friendly staff, the environment, everything is just very welcoming. This is exactly where I imagine my dream job.” He returned one year later as a volunteer in the Spring 2020 Hicatee Health Assessments where he assisted in the 5-day health check.
Now, in the second week of his fellowship, Jonathan shares, “It’s so exciting to be here at BFREE right now. I only know a little bit about the biology of Hicatee Turtles and I am overly excited that every day I now get to learn something new about them. It is thrilling to work with the hatchlings; I am also eager to learn about all the other animals found here at BFREE such as birds, snakes, and mammals. I also really enjoy hearing the birds singing early in the morning while working by the pond. “
Jonathan says, “my message to all Belizeans is that the Hicatee are especially important to our ecosystem, and it is critical that we protect them – Belize has the honor of being the final stronghold for these turtles, who are the last in their lineage. “
We are thankful to the Turtle Survival Alliance for their funding of the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship. This is the second fellowship funded by the TSA; the first was awarded to Jaren Serano who served as the BFREE Science and Education Fellow from January 2018 – December 2019. The Science and Education Fellowship is assigned to support the operations in one of three areas at BFREE – the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center, the cacao agroforestry project or the protected areas program. It is a two-year immersive work training opportunity for recent Belizean junior college and college graduates who exhibit leadership potential combined with a clear interest in the conservation of the country’s natural resources
This summer, we are bringing BFREE to you with a summer cooking series hosted by BFREE Field Course Leader, Nelly Cadle. Each month, Nelly has selected a staple of Belizean cuisine and the most loved dishes by our guests at BFREE to share with all of you through a Facebook Live cooking class.
Follow @BFREEBELIZE on Facebook and tune in for the next upcoming cooking class on Saturday, 11 July at 10 AM Mountain Time (Belize) / Noon Eastern Time to make one of the most Belizean dishes of all, stew chicken!
Saturday, 23 May: Panades
Sunday, 14 June: Rice and Beans
Saturday, 11 July: Stew Chicken
VIDEO WILL BE ADDED AFTER 11 JULY!
Follow @BFREEBELIZE on Facebook and tune in for the upcoming cooking class on Saturday, 11 July at 10 AM Mountain Time (Belize) / Noon Eastern Time to join Nelly in making Stew Chicken.
Check out more cooking with BFREE videos on our YouTube Channel!
For the past two weeks, Tom Pop and Jaren Serano have had the challenging yet important task of cleaning each of the three turtle ponds at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. With large, deep, muddy pools, the work is labor-intensive but critical to the health of the nearly four hundred Hicatee turtles in residence here.
The ponds were tackled one at a time starting with Pond A. This pond is dedicated to Breeding adults, so all turtles had to be caught and placed in holding tanks where they stayed throughout the cleaning process. Additionally, other wildlife like swamp eels and red-eared slider turtles and some larger fish like Tuba were also caught and placed in nearby creeks.
The actual cleaning process involved using a Honda Trash Pump (fondly referred to as “Mustang” due to its amazing strength and speed) to remove huge volumes of water as well as leaves and muck that had been gathering at the bottom of the ponds over the past few years. This has been followed by filling the ponds with fresh water to rinse the pond liner and dilute the thick muck, and then, once again, using the trash pump to remove more diluted muck and dirty water. This cycle repeats until the water in the ponds is clear and there is little to no detritus remaining at the bottom. Each pond has taken about seven days of hard labor.
With Ponds A and B complete as of May 17, the team has started on the rearing pond. The first task has been to lower the water to about two feet in the center in order to catch the over 200 juveniles living there. The “muck” which includes turtle manure is drained into an area outside the fenced area of the HCRC. The material gathered there will rest and break down before being relocated and used as compost for trees in our cacao agroforest.
Last week, BFREE Deputy Director, Heather Barrett, traveled to the Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC) in the Cayo District of Western Belize to retrieve twelve of the HCRC captive-born Hicatee turtles. They had been cared for at the BWRC by Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, DVM, and her team and the turtles were in good health overall. While they could have stayed for longer observation and data collection on this unique species, Corona changed it all. The recent shutdown of tourism, which provided a large portion of the non-profit clinics income as well as hands-on assistance from interns was combined with being an essential business that continued to offer services. Then came the spread of dry season fires throughout Belize and the annual baby season (which is high season for wildlife orphan intakes)… and “anybody healthy had to make space for more critical cases”. Just like the human hospitals had to do for COVID patients, Dr. Isabelle, therefore, requested BFREE to retrieve our turtles to make room for those animals with more serious health conditions.
Injuries to wildlife during a fire may include burns, injuries from falling out of trees, or having things fall onto them while escaping, or maybe less severe stresses that can still prove fatal if not addressed – like smoke inhalation and dehydration. Some animals just need access to water, food, or shelter, until their natural environment recovers. The BWRC received animals with all of these conditions. On the day that the Hicatee were retrieved, there were kinkajous, turtles, a howler monkey, squirrels, opossums, and snakes – escapees from the fire or orphans for unknown reasons. One kinkajou had fled the fire with minor burns only to climb an electrical pole where it grabbed a live wire and was electrocuted.
The BWRC’s mission is to support wildlife conservation efforts; domestic animal health and welfare; and the veterinary profession in Belize through medical services, education, research, and collaboration. Their work is big and growing all the time but they try to stay focused on their mission. In addition to the fire victims in the clinic last week, there were also confiscated animals and animals that were neglected or abused by their owners.
Jacob Marlin first met Dr. Isabelle in 2011 when the Hicatee Conservation Network was being formed and she first visited BFREE and the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center in 2015. Because of her valuable insight and a keen interest in helping to conserve this amazing species, she was invited back to participate in all subsequent Hicatee Health Assessments and has been a strong partner ever since.
Dr. Isabelle has been the lead Belize veterinarian evaluating our captive population of Hicatee for over four years. She attends two Hicatee Health Assessments per year to determine the health and reproductive status of our growing population of turtles. Just like baby humans, our hatchling and juvenile turtles are especially vulnerable to sickness caused by temperature changes, nutritional deficiencies, or other stressors. For this reason, when our young turtles are failing to thrive, Dr. Isabelle takes them to the clinic for several months to give them the additional veterinary care that will help them recover. This also gives her the opportunity to monitor them in order to gain a better understanding of their needs over time.
In the four years that BFREE has partnered with the BWRC, we have been impressed by their commitment to wildlife like the Hicatee and to educating Belizeans and visitors from abroad. As their partner, we would like to advocate for their campaign to fundraise for operational expenses during this trying time. With the halt of all veterinary trainees from abroad due to travel restrictions from Covid-19, the BWRC has lost a critical revenue stream. Like many organizations in Belize and worldwide, they are struggling to make ends meet but don’t want to furlough any of their small but critical staff when animals are still in need of daily care.
BWRC is thankful for any and all kind words, supplies or donations via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Land snails in Belize can be found in a variety of habitats. They are important food for many birds that live in Belize including currasow, crested guan, and other larger birds. Coatis and other mammals also eat land snails.
Biodiversity: The health of an ecosystem can be determined by the different kinds of land snails found in an area or it’s biodiversity. Read the introduction of the attached card to learn more about the importance of land snails in Belize. Download Land Snail Diversity of Belize card here.
Citizen Science: Participate in our on-going research of the land snails of Belize by going out in your backyard or neighborhood to search for land snails.
Because this is the dry season, you will likely not find many live snails but that’s okay!! You don’t need live animals to figure out what species (kind) of snail they are. All you need is the shells.
Activity: HOW TO LOOK FOR AND COLLECT LAND SNAILS
Snails like moist places (but not too wet!) where plants are growing.
- Get a stick and use it to scrape leaves and sticks at the base of plants and trees.
- Look around the edges of concrete buildings (snails like calcium for building their shells and can often find it on concrete).
- Pick up as many shells as you can.
- Take the shells back to your house and if you have a ruler, measure the length of the snails (using millimeters or mm).
- Use the attached card to figure out which group of snails they belong to.
- Write down your answers.
- Abundance: Count how many of each type of snail you find. Make a graph to show your results.
Finally, if you have a phone that takes pictures, take pictures of your snails along with what you think they are and send them to email@example.com or post on Facebook and tag @bfreebelize!