BFREE Fellows Participate in Ranger Weekend

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


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


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


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

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

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


Pigeon Pea’s Role in a Cacao Agroforest

While on a hike, Sipriano Canti noticed a Pigeon Pea tree covered with dried seed pods. He, Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett collected many of the pods. Soon after, Mark Canti and Lenardo Ash removed seeds from the dried pods and placed them in bags filled with soil. The bags will be placed in the plant nursery where seeds will become sapling trees. Eventually, saplings will be moved to the cacao agroforestry project to provide shade for cacao trees.

About Pigeon Pea

Pigeon pea (Cajanus cajan), is one of many tree species of shade tree that has been planted at BFREE. This is a legume that can be used as a food crop (dried peas, flour, or green vegetable peas) and a forage or cover crop. Pigeon pea is an important crop for green manure. Green manure is created by leaving uprooted or sown crop parts to wither on a field so that they serve as a mulch and soil amendment. The woody stems of pigeon peas can also be used as firewood, fencing and thatch.

Pigeon pea will provide shade for young cacao trees. As the cacao trees grow and require more space, the Pigeon peas will will be removed and only cacao trees and permanent shade trees will remain. For example, Belizean hardwoods like Barbajalote and Mahogany will continue to provide shade over the long-term.

About Cacao Agroforestry

Agroforestry practices like these can make agriculture permanently sustainable on a site and can play a critical role in biodiversity conservation. By integrating cacao trees with other short and long-lived trees, we lengthen the time that crops can be grown on a given piece of land. At BFREE, we continue to explore cacao-based agroforestry as a method for restoring rainforest habitat.

Want to learn more?

Check out: Integrating Landscapes: Agroforestry for Biodiversity Conservation and Food Sovereignty.

Edited by Florencia Montagnini is Volume 12 of the Advances in Agroforestry Series produced by Springer Publishing.

BFREE Head Ranger, Sipriano Canti, holds Pigeon Pea seeds and a pod in his hands.

Pale-billed Woodpecker Sighting

Gato Pop taking a photo of the Pale-billed woodpecker at BFREE.

Liberato (Gato) Pop was a BFREE Avian Technician from 2006 – 2013. He began working with us when he was just 16 years old as a member of the Harpy Eagle research team. Gato now works as a Park Ranger for TIDE but continues to do contract work with us from time to time. He regularly helps teach field courses and he also documents our resident and migrant birds.

This month, he began a monitoring project to document which birds utilize the young cacao agroforest. Our intention is for him to continue to collect data in coming years, so that we can understand how the bird population changes over time.

Gato’s visit in February was his first time to BFREE since early 2020. The first bird he noticed was a Pale-billed Woodpecker, which, while a wonderful, resident bird, is not an unusual sight. Still, he was thrilled and immediately searched with his binoculars for a band on the bird’s leg. He located the band and began taking photos to document this finding. This bird, he explained, was the only Pale-billed Woodpecker that he and William Garcia, previous BFREE Bird Project Leader, ever banded. Since the program ended in 2013, he estimates that they placed the band in 2011 – 10 years ago!

Pale-billed Woodpeckers (Campephilus guatemalensis)

are the largest woodpeckers in Belize and have a full red head. They commonly eat large larva of wood-boring beetles which they remove from the trunks and limbs of large decaying trees. Much to Jacob Marlin’s dismay, they are also very fond of burrowing into cacao pods. The one Gato spotted was in the forest opposite the cacao searching for food on a dead tree.

While woodpeckers are more long-lived than smaller birds, we are excited to know that this woodpecker has utilized the BFREE Privately Protected Area for so many years. We also thankful to Gato Pop for documenting this sighting!

Banded Pale-billed woodpecker spotted at BFREE by Gato Pop while conducting bird research in February 2021.

BFREE’s Bounty of Birds

For the past three years, BFREE has had Harpy eagle visitors in late February. So that means we are spending a lot of time looking up! Scouring the tops of trees like Ceiba and Prickly Yellow where we’ve seen them previously perched in hopes that 2021 will be good to us. We’ve recorded 20 separate observations within the BFREE reserve since the first one in September 2016. The most recent was by Sipriano Canti last November.

To us, it is spectacular to witness this enormous and awe-inspiring raptor. We are reminded that having Harpies around means that BFREE and the Maya Mountains remain healthy and intact enough to support this top predator.

And the Harpy isn’t the only bird indicator that the BFREE reserve is an oasis for wildlife. Our Ranger team has diligently recorded Scarlet Macaw sightings on an almost daily basis since August 3, 2020.

We don’t want the rangers to have all of the fun though! So some of the staff have started to document birds using both ebird.org and printed observation sheets. As a 2021 challenge, Nelly Cadle and I began recording a list every day. Doing this helps us to become better birders while also documenting which birds inhabit BFREE. We often ask Tom Pop for help with IDs because he is excellent at identifying birds by song and calls. Lenardo Ash has also become interested in birding and has started recording sightings with us. Finally, we can always count on Sipriano Canti to snap pics and record bird observations around BFREE because he and his ranger team are constantly on the move and have the greatest opportunity to spot amazing birds and other wildlife.

Being at BFREE nurtures our love for this country’s incredible wildlife and inspires us to continue our role as stewards of this rare and spectacular place.

Below are photos BFREE staff took of birds at BFREE in 2020 and 2021.

Land Snails of Belize Book Receives Five-Star Reviews!

In 2019, we shared that 17 new land snails were discovered in Belize by husband and wife team, Dan and Judy Dourson, and their colleague, Dr. Ron Caldwell.

Before the team’s research began in 2006, only 24 species of land snails were reported from Belize. Over the next decade, a total of 158 native land snails with 17 species new to science were documented. The Dourson’s spent seven of those years living at BFREE, and the BFREE Field Station became home-base for the snail research team for over a decade.

The long-term research resulted in the development of the first field guide for the region, Land Snails of Belize, A Chronicle of Diversity and Function, and the first comprehensive publication since the early 1900s for Central America. The book is presented as a reference to both the biologist and citizen scientist alike and includes a brief history of research in the region, status of current research, how to collect land snails, shell morphology, anatomy and terminology, and species accounts. The book contains more than 750 color images and diagnostic features highlighted for each of the 158 species.

Five-star reviews for the book, Land Snails of Belize:

Since the release of their book, we have heard from many just how useful this resource has been. But don’t just take our word for it, read some of the reviews below! And be sure to pick up your own copy here: Purchase Land Snails of Belize on Amazon

“I just received my copy of this book and I write to commend you. I am not a malacologist so I can not speak to the technical taxonomic aspects of the work. However, I have written a few natural history books and collected many hundreds more. Based on this, I think that you have produced a masterpiece of natural history- a work that will inspire me and many others to learn about and work on this fascinating group. Thank you. I look forward to seeing some of your other books on this topic.”

– Adrian Forsyth, author of, Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America

“There are many photo guide books for marine shells (and mammals, birds, reptiles, and so on) in Central America, but none for land snails. These guide books are useful for biologists and those of related professions to keep track of all the taxa and to teach students or explain or show something to someone who is not an invertebrate expert. And they are wonderful for nature lovers who want to identify something in their backyard. Land snails in the tropics have an amazing amount of diversity, and we’re just starting to understand their different niches, behaviors, and relationships.

This book is up-to-date with most of the (albeit limited) studies on land snails in Belize. The scientific names are correct (at least for now), the organization of the book is very clear to follow, the descriptions are useful, the photos are fantastic, and the maps with known localities are incredibly useful. This is a valuable book for invertebrate enthusiasts in the tropics. The background at the beginning regarding snail behavior (as well as throughout the book, where relevant), along with associated pictures (wolfsnails attacking prey, various animals interacting with snails like the snake on the cover) are very useful, making this more than just a book on identifications and bringing these snails to life. It also has beautiful drawings and close-up photos of shell patterns and ridging for identification, including different colormorphs of the same species.

In addition to land snails in Belize, there are some useful sections regarding freshwater invertebrates (also, alas, understudied in this region of the world) and slugs. For invertebrate enthusiasts, this is a great guide with beautiful photos and some funny sketches. For anyone who works with these critters in and around Belize, it’s an absolutely excellent resource.”

– Anzu

“If you are interested in the snail of this region you must get this. It’s also well done, informative in general ways, and the ways of snails. A great work, and necessary if you’re a snailologist. (FYI that’s not really a word).”

– B. J. Stephen

Land Snail Citizen Science in Belize:

If you are in Belize, visit our blog, Un-Belizeable Land Snail Activity to learn how you can participate in citizen science. Submit your snail findings by email to contact@bfreebz.org. Download Land Snail Diversity of Belize card here.

Educational materials shared with young Belizeans across the country!

By Ms. Ornella Cadle, Hicatee Awareness Month Committee Coordinator

Proud Hicatee Heroes show off the coloring sheet and board game included in this year’s educational materials. 

Each October, BFREE ambassadors and partners visit schools to present on Hicatee Awareness Month. Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, outreach looked a bit different this year. While traveling to various schools for outreach wasn’t a safe option, we wanted to ensure the incredible resources still reached students’ hands across the country. BFREE emailed electronic resources directly to over 400 principals and teachers in Belize. The following schools in the Cayo, Stann Creek, and Toledo Districts received resource packets reaching nearly 500 students in their classrooms. 

  • Church of Christ Primary School, Independence Village, Stann Creek District
  • Moriah Learning Center, Independence Village, Stann Creek District
  • Shiloh Seventh-Day Adventist School, Independence Village, Stann Creek District
  • Golden Stream Government School, Golden Stream Village, Toledo District
  • Belize Rural Primary School, Rancho Dolores Village, Cayo District

A dedicated committee of volunteers and BFREE staff members created this year’s resource materials. The committee met for several months to build a packet of creative, engaging, and informative educational resources.

A highlight of the materials included; 

  • Coloring sheet of the Hicatee Hero mascot
  • “Hicatee and Ladder Migration Game,” displaying different predators for the hicatee that you must pass by answering true and false questions correctly.
  • “Mr. Hicatee” sing-along video featuring a conversation between Mr. Hicatee and a man named Damien who wants to learn more about the problems that Mr. Hicatee encounters in his daily life and how he can help.

Various news sources including, Breaking Belize News, The Reporter Newspaper, Cayo Scoop, and Heritage Education Network Belize, have featured Hicatee Awareness Month materials throughout the month. Hicatee Awareness Month Planning Committee Coordinator Nelly Cadle says, “I am very proud to be the Committee Coordinator and work with such a talented group of people. I truly believe that our hard work has paid off and that we could reach a lot of young students. However, our job is not done, we still have more work to do to save the Hicatee, and I look forward to continuing our efforts to conserve this national treasure of Belize!” 

We would like to say a special thank you to our friends – the Hicatee Heroes at Santa Fe College’s Teaching Zoo in Gainesville, Florida. Their Quarters for Conservation project helped fund the production of all materials for this year’s Hicatee Awareness Month.

If you have any questions, please send an email to education@bfreebz.org or call 671-1299. Visit www.bfreebz.org/2020-hicatee-resources/ to view all educational resources and additional information on hicatee conservation.

I’m a Hicatee Hero! Are You? This fun video features young Hicatee Heroes from across all six districts in Belize making the Hicatee Promise. Produced by, Monique Vernon and edited by, Simon Deniard. Hicatee Graphic by Belizario Gian Carballo.

Our Presence Matters

Head Ranger, Sipriano Canti “Canti”, identifies wildlife tracks while on routine patrol.

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.

Releasing Hicatee with Belize’s Next Generation

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.

Members of the Belize Turtle Ecology Lab and BFREE pose for a photo during the community outreach event.