Disney Conservation Hero – Thomas Pop

BFREE and our international partner in turtle conservation, Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), are extremely proud to announce that Thomas Pop, manager of the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center was chosen as a Disney Conservation Hero. Tom has been recognized for over twelve years of tireless efforts to conserve the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, called Hicatee here in Belize.

Every year, the Disney Conservation Fund selects a handful of Conservation Heroes from around the world to highlight the conservation efforts of local citizens and their actions to save wildlife, protect habitats, and inspire communities to engage in conservation. Since 2004, Disney has honored more than 200 Conservation Heroes from more than 50 countries around the world.

About Tom Pop

Thomas “Tom” Pop began work with the HCRC in 2014 immediately after construction was completed. Located at BFREE, the HCRC was a brand-new project seeking to ensure the survival of the Central American River Turtle and it needed a manager who was trusted and had already proven their competency. Tom was hand-picked for the role by BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, who met him over 20 years before and had employed him consistently since then.

Tom is a Q’uechi’ Maya Belizean who was living in a small bush camp in an area called Chun Bank just across the river from the BFREE reserve. During the course of his youth, he worked as a logger who was excellent at his job. He was expertly skilled at felling massive trees throughout northern Belize.

When Jacob moved onto the BFREE reserve in 1995, his goal was to set up a field station and support the management of the neighboring Bladen Nature Reserve. He received a lease to live on and manage the 1,153-acre private property, which was covered in lowland tropical rainforest, but he couldn’t find the survey markers that define the edges of the property. After endless and unsuccessful searching, he asked his Mayan neighbors across the river if anyone knew about these small stone markers and if they could help him find them. The smiling, eager teenager who stepped forward to achieve the task, was a young Tom Pop.

Tom easily navigated through the forest and quickly found the first marker that Jacob needed to begin to establish the location of the property. Tom’s delightful nature, his remarkable skill in the jungle, and his constant curiosity about the world around him, made Jacob take note and remember him.  A few years later, when Jacob needed to hire the first Park Rangers for the Bladen Nature Reserve, Tom applied to fill the role and was selected. By then, Tom had moved from Deep River Forest Reserve about 10 miles south to the village of Golden Stream.

Over the course of the next two decades, Tom served countless roles associated with BFREE’s conservation programs. Following his role as a ranger with the Bladen Nature Reserve, Tom filled jobs as they were offered and needed at the field station. The rainforest facility didn’t operate year-round in the beginning, so Tom’s work came in bits and pieces and often involved supporting visiting researchers. Each came to respect and value Tom’s skills and company so much that they requested to work with him above all other field technicians. Because of his skills and attitude, he has supported research on everything from birds to fish to turtles to sedges. To this day, Tom is beyond compare in the field – he is an excellent bush guide, has exceptional observation skills and is a quick study. Tom is always curious and always a bounty of energy and can move farther and faster than anyone else on the team. 

When asked about where his love and understanding for wildlife and wild places came from, Tom simply replied, “It was born in me. From a young child, I followed the streams to learn where they would take me. I could look at that Ceiba tree in the distant forest and, in my mind, I could see the straight line that connected me to it, so I would go.”

In 2010, Tom was selected as the lead field technician for Dr. Thomas Rainwater in the Turtle Survival Alliance’s country-wide aquatic survey to determine the status of the Critically Endangered Hicatee turtle. Tom worked tirelessly day and night for three months to survey river systems and lagoons across the country where Hicatee had been found during surveys 25 years before, and in several locations never surveyed. 

Rainwater recounted, “Prior to the countrywide survey, it was suggested to me that Tom Pop would be a great field assistant because of his familiarity with the wetlands and forests of Belize and his diverse skillset, which ranged from capturing and handling wildlife to mechanical repair of vehicles and engines to cooking to swimming, climbing, and cutting trails to masterfully interacting with different groups of people (e.g., scientists, wildlife hunters/poachers, law enforcement officials, local villagers, students, etc.) in a variety of settings.  That advice was the key to the success of our survey.  Tom was hired, performed as advertised, and further, greatly exceeded expectations.  We achieved our goal because of him.  We are all fortunate Tom became involved with the hicatee survey and has since taken ownership of overseeing the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at BFREE.  It’s sobering to me to think of how much talent, passion, and conservation productivity might never have been realized if Tom had not been given that initial opportunity to assist with the survey.  He has and continues to do amazing work, which he loves, and he is a strong and crucial example to others and Belize (and elsewhere) that anyone (and everyone) can make a significant difference in wildlife conservation”.    

Tom views his work at the HCRC as part of his life’s journey. Although this has been his job, he has never treated his work like a job. This jungle is his home, his co-workers and researchers are his brothers and sisters, and these turtles are his children. There is never a question of “if” Tom will give 100% – he always does to those animals and plants who need him.

A few words from some who know and admire Tom

“Tom sees every turtle as one of his own and he aspires to re-populate the entire country of Belize with the turtles raised at the HCRC. Tom is also an educator. He has shown me different functions of animals within ecosystems, Hicatee behavior and most of all, he gave me an appreciation for the wildlife around. His is an inspiration and it’s a privilege to learn from him. I can’t think of a better person than Tom for this Disney Conservation Hero award. Congratulations, Tom!” Barney Hall, Wildlife Fellow at BFREE.

Steven Brewer, Plant Ecologist, Trees of Belize project, stated “I have worked and been friends with Tom for over twenty years. We have hiked and explored deep into Belizean rainforests, living and working among the tremendous challenges and wonders that accompany an unforgiving and remote tropical environment. Through it all, what stands out about Tom is his passion for learning about and connecting to Nature. Tom has a strong memory and keen eye for detail, discerning characteristics of plants and animals that would escape most scientists.  For example, I have been impressed with Tom’s ability to look for and find plant species that I showed him only once or twice.”

Jacob Marlin of BFREE stated of Tom, “Broadly speaking, his wide breadth of knowledge of flora and fauna makes him a highly sought-after field biologist. He has supported the discovery of new species, long-term studies that have led toward all kinds of knowledge outputs including publications, books, presentations, documentaries.”

“Tom is not only a work colleague – he is a mentor and a dear friend. He encourages me to see the world around me for what it is – delightful and worthy of my attention. Tom’s smile makes me smile. His curiosity feeds my own. Together, we are explorers and anything is possible.” Heather Barrett, BFREE.

“For Tom, wildlife preservation and nurturing the next generation of conservationists aren’t merely tasks; they’re a way of life. His passion transcends mere profession, reflecting a deep-seated commitment ingrained in every aspect of his being. Today, we celebrate Tom Pop—an exemplar of conservation excellence, whose influence reverberates far beyond the boundaries of BFREE.” Jaren Serano, Dermatemys Program Coordinator, BFREE.

Jonathan Dubon, Jacob Marlin, Andy Denault, Thomas Pop, Heather Barrett and Rick Hudson celebrate Tom’s achievement at a private award’s ceremony during the 20th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles in Tucson, Arizona.

Interview with Tom about his work with the Hicatee

Upon receiving the award, I interviewed Tom about his conservation work.  

What inspires you and keeps you motivated to study and conserve Hicatee turtles each day?

A lot of things inspire me here in Belize. Especially in the forest and at work. Everything around me motivates me: birds, wildlife, everything. I especially love and have taken responsibility for the Hicatee turtle because, I believe if I become the best at saving and protecting this turtle then I am saving a piece of the world.

You have played a crucial role in the recovery and protection of the Hicatee. Why is it so important that we conserve this species?

If we do not take the lead on saving species like the Hicatee that are going extinct, then who will? Someone just needs to stand up and try to do something to save the species. For me, I always think about the future. If we don’t do anything, then nobody will know about these turtles and the role they play in the environment, and they will just disappear. We don’t want that to happen for our species in Belize. When I say we, I mean all of us here at BFREE and all of us in Belize and all of us who care everywhere. If I just say “me,” then I have a very small power. If I say “we,” together, then we can really accomplish something.

What’s been the most challenging aspect of working with the species so far, and why?

The only challenging thing for me is keeping the water quality good for turtles in captivity. The water impacts the health of the turtles. If the water is stagnant or there is too much food left in the pond that degrades the quality and the turtles might get sick. Because the turtles live so long before they reproduce, then it is important for them to be healthy throughout their lives, so I spend a lot of time thinking about the water where they live.

What do you think are the biggest challenges to threatened turtles in Belize, and how do you think we best conserve them?

I think the turtles in Belize are getting threatened because the land around waterways like rivers and creeks are changing. More people are getting properties to live on and to farm close to the water, so the riparian forests are getting knocked down. This is removing vital habitat and food resources for wildlife. Also, more people are making access and paths to the rivers which is like an invitation to go and hunt turtles. These things impact the health of the rivers and creeks, and the health of the rivers and creeks impact the turtles and the other wildlife that live there.

What have you found to be the best way to engage Belizeans in turtle conservation?

You have to talk to people and educate them about the status of Belize’s wildlife and other natural resources. A lot of people still don’t know that there is a problem with the decline of species in Belize. People don’t want to hear that they shouldn’t eat something because you are taking food from their table. So, it is critical to educate people about the rapid decline of this turtle and to alert them that they are very near extinction.

Is there hope for the threatened turtle species in Belize?

Yes, there is! As long as you protect the rivers, creeks and lagoons where the turtles are functioning, then there is a chance. And if Belizeans understand how long turtles need to live before reproducing –  at least 16 years – then maybe they wouldn’t eat them so quickly. The best way to protect the Hicatee is for the country to make a strong strategy with protocols on how to protect rivers and creeks. Then those strategies and protocols need to be enforced. There isn’t one thing or one person that will save the Hicatee but there is still hope if we all work together.

Fully Booked! 2024 BFREE TURTLE SURVEY

LONG TERM TURTLE SURVEY IN THE JUNGLE

Thanks for the incredible interest in our 2024 survey. We are no longer accepting deposits for this program.

You can be added to the wait-list by emailing bnelson@bfreebz.org

Join the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE) and the Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG) to participate in a long-term population monitoring project for freshwater and terrestrial turtle species located within BFREE’s Privately Protected Area in southern Belize. The BFREE Privately Protected Area is a 1,153-acre reserve that adjoins the largest tract of rainforest north of the Amazon. It’s an incredible hotspot for biodiversity where tapirs, howler monkeys, jaguars, and harpy eagles are often spotted and is the last stronghold for many endangered species.

Participants will be supporting researchers in the fourth annual survey of a 10-year long-term monitoring project to provide basic demographic and population information. Turtles will be captured using various methods, including hand capture and baited traps, and will be given unique identification marks and injected with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags for future identification. You’ll be joined by herpetologists and experts in the field from both the US and Belize. From 2021-2023 the BFREE and TSA-NAFTRG team marked, measured and safely released 836 turtles. Turtles found included White-lipped Mud Turtle, Tabasco Mud Turtle, Scorpion Mud turtle,Narrow-bridged Musk Turtle, Mexican Giant Musk Turtle, Central American Snapping Turtle, Furrowed Wood Turtle, and the Meso-American Slider. These species represent eight of Belize’s nine known freshwater turtles.

We look forward to you joining us in Belize for the July 2024 BFREE and TSA-NAFTRG Turtle Survey in the jungle!


DATES

July 8th-18th, 2024 – OPEN

Spaces are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Deposits will be accepted beginning January 30, 2023. Participants are required to book their own transportation to BFREE, including international airfare to the Philip Goldson International Airport (BZE) and domestic airfare to Savannah (INB).

REQUIREMENTS

  • Able to hike between 5 and 10 miles a day in 90-degree weather with 100% humidity.
  • Able to lift and carry 40 lbs. for periods of time.
  • Willingness to get dirty and to put long days in.

CONTACT

Questions, please contact Eric Munscher, Director of the Turtle Survival Alliance’s – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG) at

emunscher@turtlesurvival.org

ITINERARY

  • Day One: Arrive at BZE by 1:30 PM, fly to INB at 3:30 PM (exact flight time to be updated in 2024). Transportation provided from INB to the BFREE Entrance road. Hike in to field station. Settle into rooms and unpack before dinner.
  • Day Two: Tour the BFREE Facility and familiarize yourself with the various trails and facilities. Free time to relax and swim in the crystal-clear water of the Bladen River or explore one of BFREE’s many conservation initiatives, including the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a captive breeding facility for the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, locally known in Belize as the Hicatee.
  • Day Three – Nine: Turtle surveys throughout BFREE’s 1,153-acre private reserve. Turtle surveys will primarily take place on the ground. There will be one or two days of river surveys but most data is collected on land.
  • Day Ten – Breakfast. Hike out from field station, transportation to Hokey Pokey water taxi. Stay at Sea Spray in Placencia. Dinner on your own.
  • Day Eleven: Transportation to INB for a domestic flight back to BZE.

COSTS

The cost is $1,750 per participant.

Cost Includes:

  • Double occupancy in BFREE’s newest accommodation, the Hammock, which features an open-air veranda connecting six private rooms. Linens, pillows, and blankets provided.
  • Three chef-prepared meals per day.
  • Guided night hikes and tours of BFREE’s conservation programs
  • Transportation from Savannah Airport (INB) to the BFREE entrance road.
  • Ground and water taxi transportation to Sea Spray hotel in Placencia with one night stay included.
  • Fees paid to this program not only support your participation in critical turtle research for Belize but also have a direct impact on the country’s next generation of conservation leaders. Funding from this TSA-NAFTRG-BFREE research program helps to support Belizean participation in scientific research at BFREE.

REGISTER

Space is limited for this incredible opportunity; make your deposit today to secure your spot. Deposits are due by April 1, 2024. The final payment is due by June 7th, 2024. To register for this program, read the Booking Terms and Conditions on the next page.



BOOKING TERMS AND CONDITIONS

Participants must agree to all terms and conditions of booking before registering for this program. This program is coordinated by the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE).

Covered Costs.

Participation in the 2024 Turtle Survey at BFREE is $1,750 per person. These covered costs per person include accommodations, meals (while at BFREE), guided tours of BFREE and transportation to Placencia. Program Fees Do Not include the following: international airfare to BZE, roundtrip domestic airfare with Maya Island Air to Savannah (INB), meals in Placencia, soft drinks and beers, or travel insurance, gratuities/souvenirs – at your discretion.

Deposit and Final Payment.

A $500 USD Non-Refundable initial deposit will secure your spot on the trip, or you may choose to pay in full. The remaining balance is due 30-days before the retreat start date. Failure to make payment by the applicable due date may forfeit your booking on the trip and be treated as a cancellation. If a booking is made less than 30-days before the trip start date, the full amount must be paid at the time of booking.

Payment Schedule.

The $500 deposit is due for all participants by April 1, 2024. Final payment for Participants is due by June 7, 2024. Payments should be made at www.givebutter.com/turtle2024

Cancellations.

Cancellations made by participants should include a formal refund request sent by email to reservations@bfreebz.org. According to the outline below, approved refunds by BFREE will be returned to the participant.

  • Refund requests more than 60-days before the program start date will receive a full refund minus the $500 deposit.
  • Refund requests more than 30-days before the program start date will receive a 50% refund minus the $500 deposit.
  • Refund requests less than 30-days before the program start date are non-refundable.
  • Cancellations 30-days or less to the program start date due to events directly relating to international travel restrictions and border closings, will receive a 50% refund minus the deposit.

BFREE is not liable for additional costs incurred due to cancellation, including flights, lodgings, activities, meals, etc. BFREE strongly recommends that all participants purchase travel insurance (medical, COVID-19 coverage, and trip cancellation) to protect you in case of any unforeseen emergencies. BFREE shall, in its sole discretion, have the right, upon written notice to the participant and without further liability, to terminate a program. Participants will be refunded following the Cancellation policy outlined above. BFREE is not liable for any loss or damage suffered by you, including but not limited to the loss of the Deposit and/or Full Payment, as a result of a Force Majeure Event and/or the cancellation of a Program due to a Force Majeure Event.

Travel to BFREE.

International flights should arrive at the Philip Goldson International Airport (BZE) no later than 1:30 PM on the first day of the program. On the program’s final day, international departure flights should not depart BZE before noon.

COVID-19 Policy.

All guests must adhere to the Government of Belize’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols at the time of their visit to Belize, as well as those from the departure destination. BFREE is not liable to cover or absorb losses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Cancellations 30-days or prior to the departure date due to events directly relating to COVID-19, specifically international and university travel restrictions and border closings, will be refunded 50% of the program’s total cost minus the deposit.  All visitors to BFREE are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Info Session.

Turtle Survival Alliance and Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education will host an informational virtual meeting in 2024 for all
confirmed Participants prior to survey. Meeting Date: TBA

How does Motus work? Part II in a five-part series

For over 50 years, traditional Radio-telemetry has been the cornerstone of tracking migratory studies. This is very useful to track movements of small animals with high temporal and spatial precision. But it also has its limitations because some of these former radio-telemetries may be quite impossible to use on tiny insects, animals or birds, because of their weight and size. Hence automated receivers, along with recent miniaturization and digital coding of tags, have improved the utility of radio-telemetry by allowing many individuals to be tracked continuously and simultaneously across broad landscapes. Tiny, digitally encoded tags (also called nanotags), are safely attached to an animal, insect, or bird, and these nanotags send out a unique identifying signal approximately every 30 seconds. If tagged animals fly by a strategically placed Motus tower with antenna tuned to the same frequency as the nanotags within a 6-mile distance approximately, the tag is automatically detected. Detection range depends on many factors such as tower height, antenna type and orientation, terrain, vegetation, and height of the animal relative to the tower.  

Overview of the Motus Wildlife Tracking System. Source: www.motus.org & Birds Canada

Motus Receiving Stations and Towers:

Receiving Stations are equipped with a high-accuracy GPS sensor that allows for precise time synchronization and geolocation of the receiver. Automated radio towers can be arranged to track tagged animals or insects and are custom built in a variety of styles depending on their use. But essentially it consists of:

1) an automated radio receiver,

2) one to six antennas of various types can be used

3) the tower (or support structure which is also called the mast) structure and,

4) a power source either through an existing power source or through solar power for remote locations.  

 Photos of various Motus Tower Stations. Source: www.motus.org & Birds Canada

Antenna Receivers can accommodate multiple antennas tuned to a specific frequency and may be mounted to existing structures such as tall buildings, cell phone towers, or self-standing towers. The various components of the Antenna include the ‘elements’ which are little horizontal bars. The ‘boom’ is the center bar which basically holds the elements at a specified distance. Different antennas are designed to pick up different radio frequencies. There’s no electricity on the antenna, but rather the size of the antenna, the length of the elements, and the spacing between the elements on the boom create a parabola much like a tuning fork that is tuned into a specific frequency. These antennas do not send out any frequency or ping. Rather these are “passive” receiving devices for only the specific radio frequency.

Dense arrays of radio towers can be used to track local movements and if animals are detected by multiple towers, can be used to provide precise movement data. Coordinated arrays of automated radio towers, such as those organized by Bird Studies Canada’s Motus Wildlife Tracking System, allow for tracking of animals at continental scales. Animals passing within range of these towers are automatically detected and detection data is logged on to the receiver and passed on to the researchers that tagged that animal. Detection data can be downloaded directly from the receiver unit. Alternatively, towers can be connected to wired or wireless internet, or communicate through cell phone technology, which allows for around the clock remote access to detection data. As research and tracking technologies continue to improve, the international connectivity and migration ecology of birds and other tagged wildlife is better understood. The costs to install a receiver station vary and depends on the number and type of antennas. It also depends on whether existing infrastructure can be used to mount antennas, and the power source. Information about receiver deployments, including geographic coordinates, start and anticipated end date and time, and antenna configuration and orientation, is registered in the Motus database, and made available to all users. 

Stay tuned for Series Article Part III: Nanotags and how they work

On the horizon – a new multi-purpose building at BFREE

Imagine sitting comfortably in a hammock overlooking the BFREE garden while enjoying a freshly brewed cup of heirloom hot chocolate. The cacao was grown onsite in the cacao agroforestry farms. You are on the second story screened-in porch of a new building at BFREE – the Commons.

Situated in the exact location as the old kitchen and dining room, the Commons is one of the many changes coming to BFREE. All have been inspired by the need for better services and spaces for the many types of visitors that come whether scientist, student, intern, professor, or adventure tourists, as well as the many staff who call the field station “home” most of the year.

Below find some pictures of the old kitchen as it was deconstructed in June 2023. The building has hosted countless staff and visitors since it was first built in 1997.

Saying Goodbye to the Old Kitchen and Dining Room

Construction on the Commons began in June of 2023, and the hope is that it will be completed by July 2024. The building will include: a large dining area with capacity for over 40 people, a staff dining room, a large kitchen, the main office, an internet room for visitors, a walk-in pantry, two screened porches, a lounge area, a gift shop, and a chocolate café. The two-story building will be nearly 7000 square feet including a third story small observation deck. The birding and wildlife viewing from the deck should be spectacular! So will the food – thanks to the new and improved kitchen equipment along and food storage facilities as well as improvements to our garden and orchards for even fresher ingredients from farm to table.

Many of the materials for the Commons have been harvested from the property, which will give this multipurpose building authenticity and a BFREE jungle feel that visitors have come to expect, while providing improved comforts and conveniences.

Why are we making these changes now?

Living and working in the rainforest at BFREE is both physically demanding and mentally challenging. We recognize the need to improve the experience that the many types of users have while visiting the field station, as well as for the many hard-working dedicated staff that call BFREE their home away from home.

Additional funds for the Commons are still needed – primarily for the expansion of our existing solar system to power this building and other facilities at the field station.

Hicatee Awareness Month Outreach Programs

The start of this October marked the beginning of the 7th annual Hicatee Awareness Month campaign. Kicking off this initiative, Barney Hall and I embarked on a journey to the western part of Belize, focusing our efforts on regions notorious for the harvesting of Hicatee turtles for consumption. Our initial step involved seeking permission from these schools to conduct our classroom visits.

Our primary goal was to raise awareness through educational outreach, and we did so with the help of an interactive PowerPoint presentation. Throughout our visit, we emphasized key facets of Hicatee conservation. This included promoting the recognition of the Hicatee turtle and its status, highlighting the laws designed to safeguard this species, and showcasing the ongoing conservation efforts taking place in Belize. Most importantly, we aimed to leave a lasting impact on the students, with the hope of sparking a sense of motivation within them to become the next generation of dedicated conservationists.

Our educational journey spanned across several locations, encompassing schools in Belmopan City, Roaring Creek Village, Teakettle Village, Spanish Lookout Community, Valley of Peace Village, Blackman Eddy Village, Ontario Village, Georgeville Village, Santa Elena Town, and El Progresso Village. In the span of just five days, we had the privilege of visiting 14 schools and reaching a total of 581 students.

The response to our presentation was nothing short of heartwarming. Both students and teachers expressed their eagerness to learn more about this remarkable turtle and called for stronger enforcement of the laws established to protect and ensure the long-term survival of this critically endangered species. Here are some of the encouraging comments we received:

“The entire presentation was engaging and informative. I liked the interaction throughout the session.” – Valley of Peace Community School

“Enforce the laws that are set in place to protect the Hicatee turtles.” – St. Martin de Porres R.C School

“Excellent job! Come more often.” – Our Lady of Guadeloupe High School

Very good job! Keep up the good work.” – Eden S.D.A High School

As we journey onward in our outreach campaign, we are firmly committed to fostering a nationwide recognition of this unique turtle that is literally being eaten to extinction. To contribute meaningfully to the preservation of the Hicatee turtles, we recognize the importance of engaging community members of all ages, backgrounds, and professions in our conservation and research initiatives. This collaborative approach holds the key to advancing the conservation efforts for the Hicatee and securing its future in Belize and throughout its geographic range.

Roses and Thorns: A Reflection on Life at BFREE by Cacao Fellow Graduate

There are experiences in life that can be considered life-changing, but nothing compares to spending about 70% of two years in the rainforest. I can confidently say that the two-year fellowship program at BFREE has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life.

It all began when I came across a Facebook ad about an opening at BFREE for a Fellowship position. Applying was a no-brainer for me, as I was tired of being confined to a small cubicle in my previous job. A few days after applying, I received an email from Heather inviting me for an interview. I vividly remember my first trip on the entrance road – I was supposed to get a ride in and ended up helping push a pickup truck along with some of BFREE’s staff. I won’t pretend that I enjoy traveling the entrance road, but as with most things in life, there are silver linings. For instance, I began to consider the 14 km trek as a great workout—truly a win-win situation!

To call myself a “naturalist” would be an understatement; many times, I find myself at peace when I’m lost in nature. If I’m not alone, I’m probably with Nelly, Heather, or Mario, engaged in a friendly competition of bird recognition—mind you, I had never been involved in birding before. The abundance of bird species at BFREE intrigued me, leading me to learn as much as I could from these amazing creatures. Another wonderful aspect of working at BFREE has been the chance to share cultural experiences with guests from other countries. Meeting and connecting with people who are passionate about conserving the environment is an incredible feeling.

The most significant highlight of my time at BFREE was being mentored by Mr. Erick Ac, a prominent agronomist from Guatemala. Under his guidance, I learned everything from seed germination to pruning grafted Criollo cacao trees in the field. BFREE’s relatively new initiative of propagating wild cacao in degraded landscapes is fascinating, as it aims to tackle two main problems. The first is preserving cacao genetics, and the second is restoring degraded landscapes through agroforestry.

I was initially skeptical about the project, but now, three years later, the Crioco staff has harvested a few hundred kilograms of wet cacao beans. This success shows that the project is achieving its objectives. I am even more enthusiastic because of this, and I strived to maintain accurate data to support the extension of this project. Such efforts align with BFREE’s vision of research and addressing scientific questions within the Bladen and Maya Mountain region.

The cacao program has opened up other remarkable opportunities for me. BFREE generously awarded me a partial scholarship to complete my undergraduate degree at the University of Belize. Moreover, I’ve been honored with a unique scholarship from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), where I am pursuing a master’s degree in Entomology and Plant Pathology. This special scholarship is a result of the collaboration between UTK and BFREE in the cacao program over the past few years.

My aim is to carry forward my research in cacao production and contribute insights into pest and disease management. The support that I have received exemplifies BFREE’s dedication to help provide opportunities for marginalized groups. I’m deeply thankful for the invaluable learning experiences I gained at BFREE and appreciative of the fellowship opportunity offered by Mr. Jacob Marlin and Ms. Heather Barrett. I’m also grateful to the friends and professors I’ve met along the way, especially Dr. Denita Hadziabdic Guerry and Dr. DeWayne Shoemaker, for their significant contributions to my academic development.

New Collaboration between BFREE, Penn State University, and University of Tennessee Knoxville

BFREE is excited to announce a new innovative collaboration among faculty and students from Penn State University, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and BFREE. The overall goal is to build on BFREE’s cacao agroforestry program by initiating science-based projects that both develop and enhance our understanding of the novel cacao-based agroforestry systems at BFREE and, more broadly, for Belize and Central America. Our hope is this new program will support sustainable development goals while conserving tropical rainforest.

Three projects have been awarded seed grants totaling almost $150,000 as part of the Penn State-BFREE Research and Education Initiative. Funding for this initiative was provided by Penn State Cacao and Chocolate Research Network (CCRN), the Hershey Company, Penn State Global, Penn State Huck Institutes of Life Sciences, Ag Sciences Global in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, and a private donor affiliated with BFREE.

One project seeks to identify a range of woody plant species in Belize, which incorporated into future cacao agroforestry systems could bolster biodiversity, enhance ecosystem services, and increase climate resilience. An outcome of this effort will be the creation of a comprehensive resource — the “Belize Agroforestry Manual.” Designed to be practical and accessible and provide information to BFREE staff and Belizean farmers and landholders on suitable woody plant species, their uses, benefits, various practices, and adoption guidance.

A second collaboration revolves around the ancient criollo cacao varieties at BFREE. The cacao trees will be studied with the goal of developing distinctive agroforestry systems that combat deforestation and empower local communities. The project will delve into the adaptability of criollo cacao across diverse environments and its potential to preserve biodiversity.

A third project includes the expertise of Penn State, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and international specialists in cacao fermentation. Together, they aim to unravel the mysteries behind the flavors of wild criollo cacao. This research includes sensory evaluations and a comprehensive examination of economically vital attributes like flavor and lipids. The goal is to craft fermentation and roasting guidelines that maximize flavor. Furthermore, genetic information will be connected to important commercial traits of wild criollo cacao, opening new horizons in chocolate production, which can provide insights for BFREE’s up and coming chocolate company, Crioco, as it embarks on its business venture in the near future.  

UTK PhD candidate Holly Brabazon’s research is focused on the genetics of the wild cacao trees found at BFREE. Based on previous sequencing performed by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund and the
Cocoa Research Center at the University of West Indies in Trinidad, these trees were identified as pure Criollo. Criollo cacao is highly valued for its fine flavor qualities but is extremely rare in cultivation
partly because of susceptibility to modern cacao pathogens, relatively low productivity, and a long history of interbreeding with other varieties. The overall objective of her project is to provide a robust,
sustainable framework for Belizean farmers to grow this high-value, shade-tolerant, locally adapted Criollo cacao variety. 
 
The first step will be to understand the population structure of the Criollo cacao trees at BFREE by partially sequencing the genomes of the 300 standing trees. Analyses of the sequence data will allow us to
answer several important questions regarding mating biology, pollen dispersal, breeding patterns within and among the different phenotypic variants, and recent history of Criollo cacao at BFREE. These data
will provide a foundation for a second planned study analyzing parentage of seeds to determine patterns of pollen flow throughout this population and for future genomic studies aimed at understanding or
improving various Criollo phenotypic traits of interest.

Motus Wildlife Tracking System Background: What is Motus?

Part I in a five-part series

Motus is a relatively recent program in Belize. But what is Motus? What is it used for? Who uses Motus, and how is it beneficial? These are possibly just a few questions which may come to anyone’s mind upon hearing the word for the first time. There is a lot to learn about Motus – how highly beneficial it is to the scientific community, to private landowners and managers, to stewards and caretakers of protected areas, to forest and nature reserve managers, to educators and students, and even to the local populace. It is a tool which provides meaningful data on current and future migratory ecological wildlife studies.  Such data can be utilized by decision makers, especially in government circles, to help prioritize areas for wildlife protection. In general, Motus (the Latin word for movement), is an international collaborative network of researchers that use automated radio telemetry to simultaneously track and study the migratory movements of birds, bats, and large insects at local, regional, and hemispheric scales. Therefore, this article aims to look at Motus in a bit more detail.

Motus was developed by Bird Studies Canada in 2014. Funding and support was provided by Canadian Foundation for Innovation grant, in partnership with Acadia University, (Nova Scotia), Western University (Ontario), the University of Guelph (Ontario), and other collaborating researchers and organizations. 

In March 2023, BFREE became a part of this international network by installing two antennas to the 145′ radio tower at BFREE adjacent to the dining room (Lat. 16.5551o Lon. 88.7065o). Prior to the BFREE installation, only one Motus Tower existed in Belize and this tower was installed at Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society (TREES) on May 2022 in Central Belize (Lat. 17.0526o Lon. 88.5654o). Following the BFREE installation, another Motus Tower was installed at the Lamanai Field Research Station in Northern Belize (Lat. 17.7521o Lon. 88.6538o). The other two closest Motus Towers to Belize are in neighboring Guatemala. The yellow dots indicate where Motus towers have been installed and activated in Belize and Guatemala.  (Figs. 1 & 2).

Motus continues to expand globally. For example, in the USA along the Pacific Coast flyways, Motus towers are being installed along the coasts of Oregon and Washington. The towers in these areas are collecting data on shore-bird movements such as Western Sandpiper, Sanderling, Semipalmated Plover, and Dunlin. Interestingly, all four species except for the Dunlin, are regular winter visitors along Belize’s shoreline and Cayes, while the Dunlin is considered a “transient” species but also uses the coastline and Cayes as stopover sites while migrating to countries further south. Such data continues to provide valuable information on migratory pathways, stopover sites, breeding, and wintering habitats of these birds. Researchers, scientists, and biologists working in this region are also working with partners in Mexico on Birds of Conservation Concern such as the Pacific Red Knot, one of the longest distance flyers of any shorebird. Interestingly, Belize has very few records of this species along the northern coastline.

Western Sandpiper is a shore-bird sometimes spotted in the Bladen River and is one that Motus technology is tracking. Image courtesy of Cornell Lab Photo Library of Birds

Data collected from the Motus Towers detects the different estuaries where the Pacific Red Knot migrates, how they’re using estuaries, and how long they stay there. In 2022, several Motus stations were installed in Puerto Rico in partnership with Birds Caribbean. The Caribbean Motus Collaboration (CMC) was formed to expand the Motus network in the Caribbean as part of the Landbird Monitoring Project. Recently, through the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act (NMBCA) grant program, the international collaboration expanded and funded additional Motus station installations and research across the Americas, including the first Motus bird monitoring network in Mexico.

During its first three years, Motus expanded to include more than 120 independent research projects, and comprised over 325 active receiver stations across 11 countries and 3 continents. This rich and comprehensive data set included detections of individuals during all phases of the annual cycle (breeding, migration, and non-breeding).

According to a recent article written by Rosalie Wetzel and published in May 2023, Motus has grown to include more than 1,200 stations across 31 countries. Again, the yellow dots indicate Motus stations throughout the world. Motus is indeed the largest international collaborative research network that brings together organizations and individuals to facilitate research and education on the ecology and conservation of flying migratory species.

Most of the information and graphics used in this article were obtained from the following sources:

  • Birds Canada. 2019. Motus Wildlife Tracking System. Port Rowan, Ontario. Available: http://www.motus.org. Accessed: October 2, 2023.
  • Taylor, et.al. 2017. The Motus Wildlife Tracking System: a collaborative research network to enhance the understanding of wildlife movement. Accessed: October 4, 2023.
  • Rosalie Wetzel. May 31, 2023. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Motus Stations: Tracking Migrations from Coast to Coast. Accessed: October 5, 2023.
  • Michael Rogers summary of BFREE Motus Tower. October 2023.

Stay tuned for Series Article Part II: How does Motus work?

Celebrating Seven Years of Hicatee Awareness Month

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we are waiting for. We are the change we seek.” Barack Obama

Hicatee Awareness Month was born out of a need – as are many things. The Hicatee turtle was on the brink of extinction. Belize was identified as the stronghold for the species throughout its small range. Yet, how do you get an entire country to care about saving one species of turtle? And even more challenging – a turtle that is entirely aquatic and seldom seen, so is most recognized as a delightful and celebratory meal?

With baby steps as well as trial and error. 

In 2015, I designed a t-shirt with the Mountain Printing Company in the states. The shirt displayed a photo of the first Hicatee hatchling to the HCRC (Freckles) with #SaveTheHicatee written underneath. The turtle was perfectly adorable and a hit with kids. I was excited that this was the first significant material I had created for the purpose of conservation. 

Soon after the shirts were delivered to Belize, Jacob Marlin wore his on the Hokey Pokey to travel from Mango Creek to Placencia. He ran into an old friend from the village, who said to him, “Your shirt is making me hungry!” 

Jacob later told me the story and it stuck with me. Not as a failure but as a lesson and an opportunity. We had to do more and we had to think differently.

Richard and Carol Foster were finishing a documentary film that described the plight of the Hicatee in Belize. BFREE and Turtle Survival Alliance needed to share it with audiences in Belize who could care about the species and do something about it. 

As a result, Hicatee Awareness Month was born in October 2017 as a national campaign to save the species. “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee” documentary was the centerpiece and schools and NGO partners throughout Belize partnered in ensuring that film viewings and events happened throughout the month. We featured a different #HicateeHero every day in October and shared knowledge about how cool it is to be a teacher or researcher or student or biologist and told stories about everyday heroes. We reached hundreds of students and community members in person throughout Belize and thousands online.

When October 31st rolled around in 2017, I was proud and relieved to have made it through. I also thought that would be the end of Hicatee Awareness Month, because I had only envisioned it as a one-time event. However, I started to get emails and requests about what next year’s celebration would look like. And so, it continued….


In 2018, we hosted a national poster contest and had wonderful entries from all over the country. We were thrilled when the Standard IV class at Hummingbird Elementary in Belize City formed their own Hicatee Committee and used materials we sent to teach kids throughout their entire school.

In 2019, we produced a calendar with the winning poster entries from 2018. Those calendars were included as one of the new materials in the 100 packets that were distributed that year.


Then, there was the 2020 pandemic. And the small BFREE team was running short on new ideas for the month, so we decided to form a committee and invite members from other districts in Belize to contribute a fresh perspective to the annual celebration. The results were beyond our expectations! Soon, the team created a new mascot, Mr. Hicatee, as well as activities including a new sing-a-long song and Hicatee Hero video. Packets were delivered by committee members to schools in the districts where they lived. This was incredibly important that year because teachers were required to send materials home with students.


In 2021, new materials included a poster and bumper sticker to target older audiences. These materials were distributed throughout Belize on buses and cars, in grocery stores and other locations.


In 2022, Committee membership expanded and so did our reach. This year, we continued to focus on adult audiences, creating tote bags and even a billboard asking Belizeans to Follow the laws of Belize to protect all wildlife including the Hicatee. We shifted our language to talk about the importance of protecting the watersheds that Hicatee inhabit.

This year, we continue our quest to see the Hicatee become the National Reptile and to ultimately save a species from extinction. I couldn’t be more excited and proud of what we (a growing community of people who care about Belize’s wildlife and wildlands) have accomplished. Our next steps will be to put a research team together who will go into the field to learn about Hicatee in the wild and to collaborate with the communities who share the waters with these special turtles.

The Hicatee is disappearing, but together we can save it. 


Since 2017, Hicatee Awareness Month milestones include: 

  1. More than 2,000 pages of printed educational materials, including fact sheets, coloring pages, writing prompts, and more, have been delivered to educators across Belize. 
  2. Those same educational materials are made available for free online in our Online Toolkit and emailed to more than 500 principals and teachers each year. 
  3. We have distributed Hicatee-themed items including: 500 t-shirts, 5,000 stickers, 200 posters, 160 “Herbert the Hicatee” books, 100 tote bags, and 100 “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee” DVD’s.
  4. Hicatee Hero volunteers hosted over 50 public events and classroom visits.
  5. More than 25 features on radio, TV, and in printed magazines and newspapers.
  6. Created “Mr. Hicatee,” a catchy sing-along video and song.
  7. Featured two roadside billboards in strategic locations in Belize.
  8. Over – local and international visitors to BFREE have taken the Hicatee pledge and signed the Save the Hicatee banner!

Thanks to 2023 Committee Members: Ornella Cadle (2023 Committee Chair), Colleen Joseph, Jessie Young, Claudia Matzdorf, Barney Hall, Abigail Parham-Garbutt, Jonathan Dubon, Ingrid Rodriguez, Jaren Serano, and Heather Barrett.

Thanks to past Committee members: Robynn Philips (2022 Committee Chair), Tyler Sanville, Marcia Itza, Belizario Gian Carballo, Monique Vernon, Celina Gongora, Gianni Martinez, Ed Boles, and Elvera Xi.

We are also grateful to our local and international partners who have supported Hicatee Awareness Month over the years: Turtle Survival Alliance, Independence Junior College, University of Belize, the Belize Zoo, Crocodile Research Coalition, Sacred Heart Junior College, Hummingbird Elementary, Zoo Miami, South Carolina Aquarium, Disney Conservation Fund, and Zoo New England.  

Finding Hope Amidst the Loss

A memory that is deeply lodged inside my brain – me, at the age of ten, navigating a trail behind my house winding through the lush broadleaf forests to the purpose of my being, the Belize River. A river that is deep and wide, created by two rivers colliding into one another. My heart pounds like a piston on a super truck climbing up a hill as I reach the cliff’s edge and peer over because I’m able to see schools of fish that are not scared off by my human presence. This was a time when I felt most connected to nature because the animals I witnessed didn’t seem traumatised by their contact with people. 

As a child, I was constantly fishing. I was also always observant – and when boats filled with fishermen were coming near – I quickly hid. I clearly remember one group of fishermen in a fancy John boat. They had an odd way of fishing by using ropes. Two men would shake the ropes as if they’ve hooked a giant fish and needed help from the others who would then jump in the water. When those who jumped in returned to the boat, all I would hear was a loud “bang” as if a rock fell into the hull. When I looked more closely, I could see a large turtle. I winced as the boat full of men celebrated in triumph.

I was a witness to the poaching that has led to the decline and critically endangered status of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) or Hicatee as we call it in Belize. It was very difficult for me to understand what was happening at that age. Now, I see things a bit more clearly.

Another memory that is crystal clear to me, is sitting on a cliff watching a dark brown, huge shell surfacing. I would hear a sharp sound as it released air for a couple of seconds and then torpedoed back down. The Hicatee is a unique species with a complicated physiology. I could never understand why I didn’t see them on land and always thought they were a mysterious animal. 

Animals in the wild don’t behave in the same way as they did when I was ten.  In the past I could watch fish closely as I’ve trained my eyes from a young age to spot an Iguana through dense trees or a toucan up on a high tree, but now as soon as a fish sees a glimpse of you it’s racing a bullet to hide.  Could it be because of these aghast methods of fishing? From a cliff, on a clear day, if I see a Hicatee, I must be very still when it comes up to breathe, because any sign of movement causes it to disappear. 

The trail that I once walked as a kid is no longer in existence. Now, I walk through an anthropogenic field of corn with no trees present until I reach the riverbank, which barely has twenty feet of riparian forest. What I see now are large pipes releasing effluents in the rivers, banks degrading, garbage accumulating, herons and cormorants caught in nets and fishing line, water colour not as vibrant green, and animals missing on the trails I once enjoyed. Observing all these losses breaks my heart. I wonder, when will there be sustainable efforts to restore these ecosystems and the animals that depend on them? 

Working with the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) has allowed me to develop a mindset aimed towards conserving Belize for future generations. My work at BFREE is focused on the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center which was created in conjunction with Turtle Survival Alliance as a response to catastrophic declines of Hicatee populations due to elevated levels of harvesting for human consumption. 

The facility strives to accumulate information on the species in captivity. We facilitate and promote research on the biology and ecology of Hicatee focusing on areas like breeding and nesting behaviours, temperature sex determination, dietary needs, growth rates, as well as pathogens and parasites. Through breeding efforts, we have been able to hatch and raise over 1,000 turtles and, to date, we have released over 500 of these captive-bred animals into the wild. We offer volunteer opportunities and training associated with our bi-annual Health assessments. We also host meetings and symposia to help further collective knowledge on the species.

On a national level BFREE has established the largest outreach campaign on the species – Hicatee Awareness Month. Through this campaign, we engage young minds, teachers, and the general public via events, media, and school programs to create awareness and enhance community involvement. 

We are also gearing up and planning for the launch of our field research team. Our initial research team members will consist of HCRC Manager – Thomas Pop, Dermatemys Program Coordinator – Jaren Serano and myself. There will also be opportunities for others to collaborate and assist in the field work once we get started. Together, we will gather the data needed to better understand the species and its current distribution in the wild. My team’s ultimate goal and hope is for the Hicatee to become sustainable once again in its native habitat. As for me, I won’t stop dreaming of the day when I return to the cliff of my youth and see my beautiful Belize as it once was and can be again – rich and lush in all its natural glory.