Introducing BFREE’s Newest Fellow, Barney Hall

We are proud to introduce BFREE’s newest addition, Barney Hall. Barney has joined the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship Program as the third Wildlife Fellow since it was established in 2017. The Fellows Program is a two-year immersive training opportunity for recent Belizean junior college graduates who exhibit leadership potential combined with a clear interest in conserving the country’s natural resources. The Program is designed to improve leadership and professional skills and build lasting, sustainable partnerships between emerging Belizean leaders, BFREE, and its many conservation partners.

Barney Hall and Dr. Ed Boles releasing one of more than one hundred Hicatee turtles into the wild this summer.

By Barney Hall

Greetings! My name is Barney Hall, and I come from a village deep in the heart of the Cayo District called United Ville, known for the location of the Orange Gallery gift shop. I live alongside the Belize River system, which has gifted me the opportunity to see many types of animals over the years. Living here has built my curiosity to explore and learn more about how these species live together. It has also made me want to be a part of protecting and finding sustainable ways to help wildlife while also keeping the water systems healthy. I graduated from the University of Belize with an associate’s degree in Natural Resources Management. If you ask anyone that knows me, they’ll say when I’m not working, I’m out in a canoe or mini-Boat with my fishing rod. I can say I’ve caught most of the freshwater fish species of Belize. I previously worked as a sales representative for a metal company producing estimates for roofing. Still, deep down, I felt I had a call for the environment and wanted to be a part of a movement to help conserve our biodiversity.

In a lecture by Dr. Pio Saqui, Professor at The University of Belize, I recall he mentioned that, at the Bladen Nature Reserve bordering BFREE, you could see the Harpy eagle roaming in the wild. It instantly grasped my attention, so I looked up the location and found a page about BFREE and had hoped to visit in the future. Then one day at my previous job, Mr. Jacob Marlin walked in, and we started talking. I remembered him from the research I had done on the BFREE website. Jacob shared that there was an opportunity to apply for the Wildlife Fellowship Program. He explained more about their work with the Hicatee, and I was so excited. I instantly applied for the position, hoping to get an opportunity to learn and become a part of this movement and start a career as a conservationist. Soon after, I was invited to start a trial week at BFREE. When I arrived, I was guided to the pond and started working, cutting fig leaves and running metal around the pond so other species of turtles would not enter. Jonathan and Tom explained the road they have been on over the last several years working with the Hicatee and all their epic moments. I was even more excited and ready to join their growing movement of making a difference in Belize.

After my week-long trial, I was officially offered the two-year Fellowship Program. I knew that accepting this position is a start to building a career. I love freshwater systems because of where I grew up, and I have seen the population of the Hicatee decrease over the years due to human overharvesting for meat gain. I’ve seen poachers go with canoes and chains, shaking the chain as a technique to confuse the turtle in the eddies and deeper parts of the rivers, making them surface and grabbing them quickly, taking large amounts at a time. The Hicatee is the last remaining species in the family Dermatemydidae, and if no action is taken, we could lose this species forever.

I’m most excited about BFREE’s educational campaigns, raising community awareness, issuing brochures, flyers, stickers, videos, and much more as part of their outreach programs to help change human behavior towards the Hicatee. I’m also excited about the fieldwork that I will participate in over the next two years. I know that I will also learn a lot from the bi-annual health checks, egg hunting, the process of incubating eggs until they hatch, all the weighing and measuring, and the surveys to be done.

I’ve already had a very busy first month as a Fellow. I was very fortunate to participate in the biggest Hicatee turtle release in Belize to date. It took us one week to prepare for that release. First, we removed turtles from the rearing pond at the HCRC. The process began by putting them in tubs and then measuring and weighing each turtle; this data is important to compare when searching for those released turtles in the wild. Tom, Jonathan, and I got up at 5 AM to prepare by packing the turtles and canoeing them across the Bladen River because the water level had risen, and we could not walk across the river. We headed to a river settlement where we met up with Dr. Ed Boles, who joined us in releasing the turtles. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to meet a leader in freshwater conservation within my first month of the program. Dr. Ed pours his heart out into investigating issues and trying to develop solutions to help freshwater systems all over Belize. He has done many visits to local communities to try and establish community-driven forces in monitoring species. We released over 120 turtles in the Sibun River system. Watching them swim off after a long process of raising them makes you a little emotional because you want the best for them and want them to survive and grow, but there in the wild is where they belong and have a better chance of growing faster.

I would have never expected to do so much in so little time, but all I can say is that the journey has begun, and it’s been a great blessing making a difference for the Hicatee turtle. I’ve developed a newfound love for the Hicatee turtle and look forward to learning more about them through this fellowship program.

Tom Pop and Barney measure a Hicatee prior to releasing it in the wild.

Third Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop

Developing a Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, in Belize

Co-hosted by Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Zoo New England (ZNE), and the Belize Fisheries Department, the Third Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop was held online via a Zoom webinar on May 17, 2022. The purpose of the Hicatee Conservation Workshop was to bring together stakeholders to begin to develop a Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle in Belize. Organized by Dr. Ed Boles, BFREE Dermatemys Program Coordinator, with the support of BFREE staff, the workshop was facilitated by Ms. Yvette Alonzo with technical assistance from Mr. David Hedrick of TSA. The workshop was attended by 38 professionals supporting Dermatemys mawii research, conservation, and outreach, including key Government officials from the Belize Fisheries Department.

Hicatee Conservation Forum Breakout Groups

Participants divided into five breakout groups in previously identified focal areas of: Laws, Regulations and Enforcement; Community Outreach, Education and Social Research; Captive Management and Reintroductions; Biological and Ecological Research, and in situ Conservation. The groups were tasked with discussing background, ideas, and concerns for 59 proposed actions divided among seven conservation goals. Further they were responsible for modifying action descriptions, eliminating irrelevant actions, and adding actions the group identified as appropriate.

Hicatee Conservation Forum Participants

Breakout Groups Members of the Breakout groups 
Laws, Regulations, and EnforcementFelicia Cruz, Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department – Chair, Jacob Marlin, Executive Director, BFREE – (first half), Gilberto Young, Inland Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department, Peter Paul van Dijk, Red List Authority Coordinator of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, Thomas Pop, Hicatee Conservation & Research Center Manager – (first half), Debora Olivares (note taker)
Community Outreach, Education, and Social ResearchHeather Barrett, Deputy Director, BFREE – Chair, Conway Young, Administrative Officer, Community Baboon Sanctuary, Jonathan Dubon, Wildlife Fellow, BFREE, Paul Evans, Outreach Officer, University of Florida, Emilie Wilder, Field Conservation Officer, Zoo New England
Captive Management and ReintroductionsBryan Windmiller, Director of Field Conservation, Zoo New England– Chair, Elliott Jacobson, Veterinarian, University of Florida, Brian Horne, Wildlife Conservation Society, Calvin Gonzalez, Outreach Officer, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Isabelle Paquet Durand, Veterinarian, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Dudley Hendy, Fisher, Jacob Marlin (second half), Thomas Pop (second half), Julie Lester (note taker)
Biological and Ecological ResearchDay Ligon, Professor of Biology, Missouri State University – Chair, Boris Arevalo, Wildlife Conservation Society, Donald McKnight, Turtle Biologist, La Trobe University, Thomas Rainwater, Research Scientist, Clemson University, Venetia Briggs-Gonzalez, Director, Lamanai Field Research Center, Manual Gallardo, Olmaca University, Guichard Romero, D. mawii researcher in Mexico, Vanessa Kilburn, Director, TREES  Eduardo Reyes Grajales, D. mawii researcher in Mexico, Jessica Schmidt (note-taker)
In situ ConservationAndrew Walde, COO, Turtle Survival Alliance – Chair, Elma Kay, Managing Director, Belize Maya Forest Trust, Tim Gregory, TSA and BFREE Board Member, Yamira Novelo, Technical Assistant, Wildlife Conservation Society, Denise Thompson, Per Course Faculty, Missouri State University, Ed Boles, Dermatemys Program Coordinator, BFREE  
*Attendees who were not able to participate in Breakout Groups were Rick Hudson, Turtle Survival Alliance and Tyler Sanville, BFREE

Workshop Results

Results of the workshop yielded a 33-page transcript capturing input from participants, which will serve as a supporting document for the compilation of the first draft of the “Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, in Belize”. A follow-up workshop to review the draft will take place later in 2022. Completion of an integrated and inclusive plan for Belize, guided by research and decades of traditional fisher experience, is the goal. If successful in this country, the content will be exported as guidance for similar plans in Mexico and Guatemala.

The overall theme of this very successful workshop can be described as taking actions to increase research, conservation, and restoration initiatives that are inclusive of local communities and the promotion of community-based management through the full D. mawii range. Farmers, fishers, youths, and all concerned citizens are recognized as vital partners in ensuring the survival of D. mawii into the future – a theme that shall be tightly woven into the resulting conservation, management and action plan.

Genetic Analysis of Dermatemys mawii

BFREE’s second Hicatee (Central American River Turtle) Health Assessment of 2022 took place on July 5 and 6. These dates were much earlier than normal because there was an opportunity to conduct a much-needed genetics study. Dr. Natalia Gallego Garcia traveled from Colombia to collect the samples that will be used for genetic analysis. With the help of Luke Pearson and Isabelle Paquet-Durand, she was able to collect 44 samples from the 46 adult captive turtles in residence at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). Collected samples will be stored at BFREE until export permits are received. The study is critical to the on-going work at the HCRC and for the Hicatee program in Belize.

Improving Captive Management

Using this genetics study, Natalia will implement a paternity analysis. Data collected will be used to assign all the clutches hatched at the HCRC to a mother (dame) and to potential fathers (sires). We will also gain an understanding of the reproductive output of the species by determining which captive adults are reproducing and how often. Results will be used to improve captive management protocols.

Supplementing Wild Populations

Further, the study will help us determine the genetic composition of wild populations and understand how to supplement those populations with captive animals if necessary. Dr. Gallego-Garcia will conduct a population genetics analysis that includes wild samples in Belize as well as Mexico and Guatemala.

In addition to the genetics study, morphometric data was collected on all adults as well as the majority of juveniles. Dr. Isabelle and her assistant performed ultrasounds on all adult females and identified follicles already forming in many of the turtles.

Finally, because a survey team from Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG) was onsite, Natalia was able to collect samples from a subset of those turtles as well.

Hicatee Health Assessment participants

UCLA Shaffer Lab – Natalia Gallego-Garcia; TSA- NAFTRG turtle survey team members – Eric Munscher, Collin McAvinchey, Becca Cozad, Tabitha Hootman, Arron Tuggle, Georgia Knaus, Maddie Morrison, Nichole Salvatico, Luke Pearson, and Stephen Ross; TSA and BFREE Board Member – Tim Gregory; Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic – Isabelle Paquet Durand; BFREE – Tom Pop, Jonathan Dubon, Barney Hall, Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett

Natalia Gallego García received her Ph.D in 2019 at Universidad de los Andes. For her dissertation, she used landscape genomics to determine mechanisms affecting the functional connectivity in two endangered and endemic turtles in Colombia. She conducts work through UCLA’s Shaffer Lab as a postdoc, working on a range wide landscape genomic analysis of the red-footed tortoise across South America, with a particular emphasis on Colombian population differentiation.

Introducing the Dermatemys Program Coordinator

By Jacob Marlin

After 12 years of raising awareness and developing a strong Hicatee conservation program, BFREE in partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), is pleased to announce the creation of the new position of Dermatemys Program Coordinator within the BFREE organization. We have contracted Dr. Ed Boles, a naturalized Belizean who brings more than three decades of experience and leadership from a freshwater ecological perspective, along with strong relationships with government, NGO’s, and local community members. Dr. Boles will help foster the necessary collaborations needed to create a holistic regional program to ensure the Hicatee has the best chance of survival into the future.

Dr. Boles began his new role on February 1st, 2022. The two of us are already working closely together along with other BFREE and TSA staff and local community members to become fully acquainted with the many activities, accomplishments, challenges and stakeholders involved in the conservation and sustainable use of the species. In the coming months, we will be advertising for an “Assistant Dermatemys Program Coordinator” position to be filled on July 1st, with the intention that the assistant position will slide into the coordinator role after Dr. Boles completes his one-year contract. 

We have ambitious goals for 2022, and we are excited to keep you posted on our efforts to advance the conservation of this unique and culturally important species.

Feste Film Crew Visits the HCRC

In collaboration with the European Nature Trust, The Feste Film crew has been traveling throughout Belize, documenting the country’s many important conservation initiatives since January.


This week, the crew stopped at BFREE to learn about our work to preserve the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, locally known as the Hicatee. They are interviewing BFREE staff at our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) and learning about our captive breeding program and rewilding goals for this critically endangered species.

The Feste Film crew beats the heat with BFREE bandanas!

A New Species of Coccidia Described in D. mawii

We are pleased to announce a recent publication in the Journal of Parasitology that describes a new coccidian protozoan, Eimeria grayi. Named after the biologist who described Dermatemys mawii, this is the first description of a coccidian in the Central American River Turtle. The discovery of this bacteria advances our understanding of this under-studied and monotypic species of turtle. This coccidian was identified in captive turtles at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at the BFREE Field Station in southern Belize. We do not know if this coccidian exists in wild turtles. 

The publication was a team effort and we are especially grateful to Dr. Elliott Jacobson who took the lead on this important effort.