Celebrate the 5th Annual Hicatee Awareness Month!

Please join BFREE and the Hicatee Awareness Planning Committee in celebrating the 5th Annual Hicatee Awareness Month this October! 

The Hicatee turtle is the only living species in an ancient family dating back 65 million years. This turtle has outlived the dinosaurs! Unfortunately, the Hicatee now faces a high risk of extinction due to overhunting.  The Hicatee needs greater protection. 

Hicatee Awareness Month began in 2017 by BFREE with support from our partner the Turtle Survival Alliance. Each year, the month-long celebration grows as more people become aware of our national treasure, the Hicatee turtle. 

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 400 Save the Hicatee t-shirts, 3,400 stickers, 100 “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee” DVD’s, and 60 “Herbert the Hicatee” books.
  4. Hicatee Hero volunteers hosted over 50 public events and classroom visits.
  5. More than 15 features on radio, TV, and in printed magazines and newspapers.
  6. The creation of “Mr. Hicatee,” a catchy sing-along video and song.

In 2020, we created the Hicatee Awareness Month planning committee in order to better reach Belizeans country-wide. This is an all-volunteer committee made up of BFREE staff and local artists, conservationists, professionals, primary and college teachers, and parents. 

Interested in learning more about the Hicatee turtle and participate in virtual activities during October and year-round? Then follow BFREE Belize on social media!

Online Toolkit of Educational Materials and Videos: www.bfreebz.org/hicatee-resources

Introducing #CantiCam

Puma or Mountain Lion caught on BFREE Camera Traps 2021

This July, BFREE launched a new wildlife monitoring program with Panthera Wildlife Cameras. These cameras are designed to endure the wet, humid rainforest conditions and are perfect for the BFREE Privately Protected Area. Protected Areas Manager and Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, is tasked with managing the project. Canti states “With this monitoring program, we are playing an important role in identifying the wildlife that utilize the property. Not only for their homes but as a pass through to the neighboring protected areas.”

Sipriano Canti, BFREE Head Ranger, checking a wildlife camera in the young cacao agroforest

Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, has identified three goals for the project. 1. Several cameras will be situated in the cacao agroforest and will look at the species utilizing the area and their abundance over time; 2. Monitor and observe the species found throughout different parts of the reserve; and 3. Contribute to a regional jaguar monitoring research program.

Fun with Social Media

The wildlife cameras are also giving us a great opportunity to share with our audience the many cool things that move around the property on a daily (and nightly) basis. Look out for regular updates under these themes and more! #TapirTuesday #WildcatWednesday #FurryFriday #CantiCam

Journal Article on Predation of Turkey Vulture at BFREE

A Turkey Vulture shortly after being captured by a Boa Constrictor at the field station of the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education in Belize. Photo by Heather Barrett

Press Release #7: Reprinted from the Raptor Research Foundation

Journal of Raptor Research 55(3)

Predation on Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura): A new observation and review

Authors: Steven G. Platt, Heather A. Barrett, Leonardo Ash, Jacob A, Marlin, Shane Boylan, and Thomas R. Rainwater.

The Turkey Vulture is a relatively well-studied scavenging bird common throughout much of North America. However, certain aspects of its life history, especially predators and predation remain poorly known. In a recent study, an interdisciplinary group led by Steven G. Platt (Wildlife Conservation Society) described the predation of an adult Turkey Vulture by a large Boa Constrictor in Belize, Central America. The authors then analyzed the 11 previously published accounts of predation on Turkey Vultures. Most of these reports are equivocal, with identification of the predators based on forensic interpretation of carcass damage, tracks found at nests, and presence of nearby burrows inhabited by predators, rather than on direct observation of predation events.

The authors could find only three unequivocal reports of predation on Turkey Vultures, all of which involved large predatory birds. “Our results are surprising” says Platt. “You’d think that because Turkey Vultures are large, rather ungainly birds that are slow to take flight when gathered at a carcass, they’d be taken by predators more frequently, but that actually doesn’t appear to be the case.” Although the reason why Turkey Vultures are rarely killed by predators remains a mystery, the authors speculate that high levels of pathogenic bacteria present on their feathers, skin, and viscera render Turkey Vultures unpalatable or possibly even toxic to many predators. Predation on Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura): A New Observation and Review is available at http://www.bioone.org/toc/rapt/current

Boa Constrictor beginning to swallow Turkey Vulture. Photo by Lenardo Ash.

About the journal: The Journal of Raptor Research is a peer-reviewed, international journal dedicated to the dissemination of information about birds of prey, and is the official publication of the Raptor Research Foundation.

Adopt a Cacao Tree

In 2015, cacao beans discovered on wild trees within the BFREE Privately Protected Area were submitted for genetic testing to the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP). The results determined that this could be the original chocolate tree, 100% pure Criollo parentage, grown and revered by the ancient Mayan Civilizations, and one of the few pure wild cacaos known to exist on the planet. The beans were given the designation of “heirloom fine flavor” by HCP, only the 11th chocolate in the world to receive such an honor. Since this designation, BFREE has become an active partner with HCP. As part of HCP’s work, they have generously been providing small grants to BFREE over the past two years to assist with the development of our work to propagate heirloom fine flavor cacao.

Become a Champion of Heirloom Cacao Farmers

We are excited to share that you can Adopt a BFREE Cacao Tree through HCP’s adoption program to champion heirloom farmers and families around the world. Adoptions are either a one-time payment of $180 US (or 12 monthly payments of $15 US).  For each adoption, you will receive a digital personalized adoption certificate, an Information card including the farm overview, location, and photo of your adopted cacao tree, and three (3) bars of fine chocolate made from the Heirloom Cacao farm where your adopted tree lives.  

Adopt a tree from BFREE by selecting “HCP #11, BFREE Demonstration Cacao Farm, Belize” at the link below!


The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund

HCP was established in 2012 with the mission to “identify and preserve fine flavor “heirloom” cacao for the preservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of farming communities.” Launched in partnership with the USDA and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, HCP was formed in response to the global pressures of environmental change, deforestation, and economic influences threatening the world’s supply of high-quality, flavorful cacao. Recognizing these endangered cacao trees are the foundation for not only delicious chocolate but also the livelihood of many farmers and farming communities, the HCP is the first initiative to identify and map the world of high-quality, fine flavor cacao and certify growers of these endangered trees.  

Learn more about BFREE’s designation and view a short documentary about our heirloom cacao: HCP #11 – HEIRLOOM CACAO PRESERVATION FUND

TSA-NAFTRG Turtle Survey at BFREE

Last month, the BFREE reserve became the focus of a mark-recapture survey by the Turtle Survival Alliance’s – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG).  After a year’s delay due to the COVID pandemic, the team was thrilled to get approval from Belize Fisheries Department to implement their research.

The TSA-NAFTRG team’s goals included establishing safe protocols for surveying freshwater turtles on the property, training BFREE staff on those methods, locating appropriate long-term survey sites and completing an initial assessment. Their timing couldn’t have been better: with the onset of rainy season, creeks were flowing, puddles formed regularly and turtles were everywhere.

The TSA-NAFTRG team of Eric Munscher, Arron Tuggle, Andy Weber, Collin McAvinchey, and J. Brian Hauge  were joined by BFREE staff, Tom Pop, and Jonathan Dubon as well as BFREE Fellowship Program Alum, Jaren Serano, who helped with the survey just prior to returning to the U.S. for grad school. TSA COO, Andrew Walde, and TSA Board Member/ WCS Coordinator for Turtle Conservation, Brian Horne, were also present and able to spend time in the field during the survey.

This initial assessment was deemed an incredible success with 227 turtles captured, marked, measured and safely released. Turtles found included Meso-American Slider, White-lipped Mud Turtle, Tabasco Mud Turtle, Scorpion Mud Turtle, Mexican Giant Musk Turtle, Central American Snapping Turtle, and the Furrowed Wood Turtle – representing seven of Belize’s nine freshwater turtles. (Fun fact: the Central American River turtle/ Hicatee is the only Belizean freshwater turtle that does not naturally occur on the BFREE reserve!)

We are grateful to the TSA-NAFTRG team for supplying us with the expertise and field equipment needed to ensure this survey continues and we look forward to their return trip next July!

Congratulations Drs. James Rotenberg and Vibeke Olson on your retirement!

Vibeke Olson and Jamie Rotenberg

Congratulations to long-time BFREE supporters, field course leaders, researchers, and adventurers, Drs. Jamie Rotenberg and Vibeke Olson on their recent retirement from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Extraordinary husband and wife team, Jamie and Vibeke, have been visiting BFREE for nearly two decades as professors bringing field courses, as researchers, with their graduate students, and as supporters. 

Their impact on BFREE has been significant. BFREE is a better place because of Jamie and Vibeke. So from your BFREE family, congratulations! We look forward to this next chapter in your lives and can’t wait to share in a few of your upcoming adventures.


Messages from your BFREE Friends and Family:

Judy Dourson and Jamie on a UNCW-BFREE Field Course in 2007. Photo Credit: Lisa Ramsden

From Judy and Dan Dourson, BFREE Staff Members 2006 – 2013:

We first met Jamie (Dr. Rotenberg to most) in December of 2006 in our first few months as field station managers of BFREE.  He arrived along with close friend and cave diver, Sam Meachum, to lead the first of many expeditions into the Bladen Nature Reserve to establish survey protocols for what would be an extensive, long-term study of neotropical migratory birds and the signature species, the Harpy Eagle.  Jamie’s tenacity and determination were on full display when he limped into BFREE after one particularly grueling expedition, hiking over 8 hours through trail-less, brutal terrain to reach BFREE only to discover a very painful broken collarbone.  Dr. Rotenberg’s tireless commitment to the Avian Monitoring and Harpy Eagle study produced numerous grants to fund the study.

By far our most elaborate scientific collaboration with Jamie was in 2016 when Dan became a co-investigator for a National Geographic Waitt Foundation Grant that focused on the potential relationship between land snails (Dan’s research focus) and Harpy Eagles.  With over 30 participants, the expedition was a technological feat that entailed creating a mobile lab to process snails, portable generators hauled deep into the jungle to provide power for advanced drone technology and elite cavers from Poland who dropped into a 300-foot sinkhole during the expedition.

Jamie hiking through the Bladen River during the 2016 National Geographic Waitt expedition. Photo credit: Kasia Biernacka

While Dan’s interactions with Jamie would revolve around their shared passion for the biodiversity of this exceptional region of the world, my time spent with Dr. Rotenberg centered on the development and implementation of seven field courses.  In true fashion, Jamie always knew how to shake things up and challenged me to expand my own horizons as Director of Educational Programs at BFREE leading to new field course locations like Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary or Tikal in Guatemala. I met Jamie’s lovely and spunky life companion, Vibeke, while working with them to plan and execute an innovative course for biology and art/architecture majors focused on the art and architecture of Maya archaeological sites and structures and the biodiversity found around these anthropogenic structures.  Another creative collaboration with Dr. Rotenberg focused on Environmental Psychology with both environmental sciences and psychology majors. 
 
Our field course adventures were always informative, stimulating, sometimes challenging, and full of surprises but it was those challenges that strengthened the bonds of what is sure to be a lifelong friendship.  It is with great delight that Dan and I welcome them into the wonderful world of “retirement”.  We look forward to learning more about what new adventures await and how we can participate. To quote my comedian spouse, Dan, “After all, snails and birds rule, everything else drools!”


Jamie and Jacob Marlin proudly hold the 2012 Partners in Flight Award for Bird Conservation that was awarded to BFREE.

From Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director:

From the first time Jamie came to BFREE back almost two decades ago, he has played a key role in so many of our conservation programs. From leading our bird research and monitoring efforts, including the rediscovery of a wild breeding population of Harpy eagles, to training young Belizeans to be bird biologists. His passion for teaching brought hundreds of students from the USA to BFREE on study abroad programs for more than a decade. In 2014, BFREE was honored to have Jamie join the board of directors, where he currently serves as vice-president. Over the many years, Jamie and Vibeke have continued to support BFREE in countless ways, always believing in us and our mission. They are both true partners in conservation. Congratulations to this dynamic husband and wife team!


Jamie examines a bird for data collection during a research trip to Belize.

From Marlyn Cruz Sierra, BFREE Staff Member 2012 – 2014:

 Working along with people who share an incredible passion for what they do is one of those experiences that you will always cherish. For me, Dr. James is that person. He transmitted this passion and love of his work and projects when I participated as an avian technician at BFREE, so it never really felt like “work.” He was always very communicative and incredibly organized. He was unselfish with the wealth of knowledge he possessed, willing to give you an opportunity for growth, and cheering you on while you accepted new challenges.


Gato Pop center and Jamie top right along with the Harpy Avian Team in 2008 at BFREE.

From Liberato “Gato” Pop, BFREE Staff Member 2006 – 2015:

I would like to say that Dr. Jamie has been a great mentor for me. He has guided me through numerous trainings to become an expert avian researcher. He has always encouraged me to continue what I love and that is working with nature.

I want to thank Dr. Jamie and Dr. Vibeke for their support of our bird banding project for the past years at BFREE.


Jamie and Vibeke pose with students from UNCW during their BFREE Field Course.

From Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director:

I admire how well Jamie and Vibeke have participated in each other’s professional and personal interests over the years. Although they have focused their careers on different continents, they remain a strong team supporting one another by each being engaged in the pursuits of the other. Jamie picked Central America and the sciences for his research while Vibeke chose Europe and the arts for hers. Instead of allowing their differences to divide them, they used them as an opportunity to explore the world together. With that model in mind, I’d say the sky is the limit for their shared retirement. Congratulations, Jamie and Vibeke!


Jamie and Lisa reunited after a decade at a 2017 BFREE Fundraiser in DC

From Lisa Ramsden, UNCW Alum and BFREE Field Course Participant 2007:

Dr. Rotenberg fostered my deep love of tropical ecosystems and birds through his classes at UNCW. I am so thankful that I particpated in his Environmental Psychology course that took students to Belize and that I was able to visit BFREE. It was a truly eye-opening experience for me. I feel so lucky to have taken a variety of classes with him and to have gotten the wonderful experience to intern with him on his Painted Bunting project. Congratulations on your retirement, wishing you all the best!


James and Jamie in Belize

From James Abbott, UNCW Alum, BFREE Field Course Participant and Assistant Researcher:

Congratulations Dr. Rotenberg on your retirement. You have been an amazing mentor to me. I believe that even more than the knowledge, experience, and skills, you passed on to me; the biggest influence I carry with me everyday is your attitude toward life and teaching demeanor and style. Those have and continue to shape my career in environmental education. Not to mention my unofficial role as the painted bunting ambassador to all of southeast VA – our region’s newest breeding bird. I cannot thank you enough for everything you have done for me and I hope we can meet up again someday at BFREE and enjoy a field station harpy eagle together.


BFREE Birding Club T-Shirts For Sale!

You asked, we answered! BFREE is partnering with Bonfire to create and sell t-shirts that support our conservation programs. Our first t-shirt design is in honor of the BFREE Birding Club and sports a beautiful Rufous-tailed jacamar. Anyone can join the BFREE Birding Club! The best part – you can pick from five different styles of shirts and nearly twenty different colors! Profits from each sale will directly support BFREE’s conservation programs. Shirts are mailed every 4-weeks directly from the Bonfire warehouse. If you have a question about shipping please do not hesitate to contact us!

Bird watching is the ultimate connector.

The BFREE Privately Protected Area is home to more than 80 species of migratory birds and hundreds of resident species. When we scour the branches for our feathered friends in Belize, we are reminded that some of them have migrated from your backyard to ours. Our location is critical for wildlife, and with your support, we can make a difference in protecting critical wild spaces for all of our furry, scaly, and feathered friends!

Restore Our Earth — Happy Earth Day!

The Bladen River at BFREE. Photo by Head Ranger, Sipriano Canti

Today marks what is now the most widely observed secular holiday across the globe, Earth Day! Celebrated April 22nd annually, organizations and individuals come together to demonstrate support for environmental protection. This year’s earthday.org theme is “Restore Our Earth.” The theme rejects the notion that mitigation or adaptation are the only ways to address climate change but that it is up to every one of us to Restore Our Earth. 

“Restore” is not a new theme for us at BFREE; in fact, it is a significant theme to all that we do. 

Restoring tropical rainforest. Our cacao-based agroforestry program was created as a strategy to conserve and restore tropical rainforests in Belize. 

Restoring watersheds. BFREE has partnered with the Monkey River Watershed Association working to conserve and restore the integrity of the entire Monkey River Watershed. 

Restoring habitats. Through extensive management and protection of the BFREE reserve, our rangers are restoring habitats to ensure BFREE remains a hotspot for biodiversity. 

Restoring wildlife. Our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center is restoring local populations through captive-breeding and release programs. 

Our success in restoring wildlife and wildlands is because of our relentless stewardship, innovative strategies, and your support. As we celebrate our 25th Earth Day at BFREE this year, we know that there is still plenty of work to be done – but together, we can Restore Our Earth. 

Happy Earth Day! 

March 2021 Hicatee Health Assessment

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

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

The Value of Health Assessments

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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

Dry Season at the Turtle Ponds by Jonathan Dubon

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

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


Nesting Season

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

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

Wildlife at the Turtle Ponds

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


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