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

Meet BFREE’s Newest Fellow, Mark Canti

Mark Canti in BFREE’s Cacao Nursery, August 2021

A Little About Me
I was born in a subtropical climate during the rainy season in my native village of Golden Stream. It is located along the main highway, a couple of miles south of the BFREE junction. I do not remember much of my childhood, but I sure remembered how much my parents loved, cared, and supported me throughout my childhood. I attended primary school graduating as a salutatorian. I moved on to high school with a mindset of “Oh, I’m just gonna do whatever.” I wasn’t involved in anything. After graduating from high school, I wasn’t planning on going to college, so I stayed home doing chores and other temporary jobs such as construction, woodwork, and maintenance. Over that period of time, I attended summer camps with Ya’axche Conservation Trust, whereby I first started to develop a sense of interest in nature.

The following year I applied to Independence Junior College, majoring in Natural Resource Management (NRM). It took me a little while to commit myself to education but, once I did, I was invested despite the lack of internet access and technology at home. While attending college, I became extremely involved on campus by volunteering to plant trees and attending clean-up campaigns with non-governmental organizations like the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) and Oceana.

Most of my favorite hobbies are related to the life of an environmentalist. I like nature walks, night hikes, mountain climbing, canoeing, traveling, photography, and snorkeling. Soccer is my favorite sport simply because it helps me stay active, allows me to socialize, and for the most part, it assists me in clearing out stress. I’m an easy-going individual who is focused on conserving the environment and developing advanced photography skills.

First Memory of BFREE
My first memory of BFREE was one and a half decades ago when I was a kid attending primary school. I remembered coming to BFREE on an educational school trip where I first witnessed Mr. Jacob Marlin display an amazing activity where he captured a venomous snake called a fer-de-lance. He was so generous that he gave us the experience of touching the snake, which is impossible for a child to do on its own. That was one of the greatest experiences I have had as a child.

Another Visit to BFREE during College
During my years of study at Independence Junior College, I never imagined I would be working for BFREE one day. Not that I wasn’t interested, of course, I always thought about it during the final days of the last semester at IJC. What really motivated me was attending a school trip here at BFREE, whereby a sensational occurrence happened. Guess what? We were the first set of IJC students to get the opportunity to see the Harpy Eagle with our sharp, naked eyes. So that wonderful experience made me curious and more interested in wanting to work and join the BFREE family to help support mother nature.

Over the Next Two Tears
One of the things I have noticed about BFREE is that it has been providing opportunities for the Fellows to improve their writing skills by allowing them to participate in helping write reports and grants. This is interesting to me. I am also interested in working with researchers, which allows the Fellows to meet new people while also learning advanced research assessment skills, which could be useful both for the organization and a Fellow’s own career.

What I like About Cacao-Agroforestry
With cacao-agroforestry, I’m most interested in how interplanting cacao trees, along with shade trees that bear fruit and other hardwood trees, attracts different species of birds and other animals. Programs like this, which seek to regenerate the rainforest, are both beneficial to our well-being and also to the environment. Healthy forests provide us with cleaner air and also, ultimately, prevent animal species from going extinct. Separately, the program also allowed me to unlock a skill of mine I never knew I had, which is grafting cacao trees.

Congratulations to Jaren Serano, BFREE’s first Wildlife Fellow alum!

Congratulations to BFREE’s first Wildlife Fellow alum, Jaren Serano, who recently graduated with honors from Jacksonville University. He completed his Bachelor of Science in Sustainability and Minor in Biology in June 2021.


Jaren helped launch the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship Program in January 2018. With the support of the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Jaren spent the two-years in the new work-training program. He learned to support the operations of the HCRC and he also had the opportunity to glean knowledge from the many amazing visitors to the field station. He participated in and presented to field courses with students from all over the world, he assisted visiting researchers and helped implement outreach programs.


During his second year, he began presenting at professional conferences in Belize. In August 2019, he traveled to Tucson, Arizona with Tom Pop, Jacob Marlin, and Heather Barrett to present at the 17th Annual Symposium on the Conservation Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. Jaren’s ten-minute talk received a standing ovation and he was awarded Best Student Presentation. That symposium was critical to Jaren’s next steps because the team re-connected with Dr. John Enz of Jacksonville University (JU) who brings student groups to BFREE. John learned that Jaren was applying to schools in the U.S. to complete his Bachelor’s degree and suggested that Jaren apply to JU.

With the help of an amazing GoFundMe campaign, which many of you supported, and a substantial scholarship from JU, Jaren was able to enter college in January 2020 – just in time for a global pandemic. In spite of many challenges, Jaren excelled in his courses and was an active contributor in the classroom and a role model to other students. During his summers, Jaren returned to Belize and BFREE where he assisted with field research relating to the Hicatee, helped with projects at the HCRC, and, most recently, participated in the TSA-North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG) turtle survey of the BFREE reserve.

Jaren will begin graduate school at the University of Florida this month. Jaren received a full-tuition scholarship through the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars program and secured a research assistantship to cover additional costs. Jaren will work under the advisement of another BFREE partner, Dr. Ray Carthy, in the department of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. Jaren’s research will examine how human interventions such as beach renourishment impacts natural coastal processes and resilience. Primarily, he will examine how gas exchange relates to sea turtle nesting, dune building, and carbon sequestration.

We are incredibly grateful to all those who have supported Jaren and cheered him on throughout his journey. A special thanks to Turtle Survival Alliance’s Board of Directors without whom Jaren’s Fellowship would not have been possible. Also, to John Enz and Ray Carthy for being incredible BFREE partners and mentors to the BFREE staff. Thanks to Day Ligon and Denise Thompson for their support and tutelage of Jaren and other BFREE staff over the past few years. Finally, thanks to the many donors who supported Jaren’s GoFundMe campaign. Each and every one of your gifts mattered!

Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon Embarks on 2nd Year

Jonathan Dubon is the second Wildlife Fellow to take part in the BFREE Fellowship Program. Jonathan began working with BFREE in June 2020, immediately after the shelter-in-place order was lifted in Belize. He assists Tom Pop at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC), and although his program began during the COVID pandemic, his first year has been a productive one.

Under the mentorship of Tom Pop, Jonathan has learned how to feed and care for all turtles at the HCRC. He has learned to look for signs of stress and illness and to collect morphometric data during the bi-annual health assessments. He has worked closely with Tom on several projects to upgrade the facility; the most notable have been improvements to the nesting areas and the water movement.

Additionally, Jonathan has been responsible for updating and managing an ongoing census of the captive population of Hicatee turtles in residence at the HCRC. With hundreds of turtles hatching each year and with the recent turtle releases, this is no easy task. The information is constantly changing, so he has to review the data regularly to ensure accuracy. He has taken on the essential responsibilities of creating quarterly reports of activities affiliated with the HCRC, water quality testing at the HCRC, and managing the weather data for the entire field station.

Working with radio-tracking devices to better understand what happens to hicatee in the wild.

Over the past year, Jonathan has both led and co-presented on several virtual presentations. On August 27th at 12:15 EDT, he will present virtually at the 19th Annual Symposium on the Conservation of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles. His talk is “Environmental Education and Re-wilding of the Critically Endangered Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) During the 2020 Pandemic.” He will discuss his role in the newly formed Hicatee Awareness Month planning committee and will highlight last October’s awareness campaign. He will also describe the release of the HCRC’s first re-wilded Hicatee turtles and one of the associated community outreach events. To learn more about attending the conference or to see Jonathan’s presentation visit our partner’s website and register for free here:

https://turtlesurvival.org/2021-symposium/

Jonathan has spent the last month in the field monitoring the movements of 25 recently re-wilded turtles from the 2021 hatchling cohort. He and our partners from Belize Turtle Ecology Lab are radio-tracking turtles to begin to understand how far they travel from their release point, what their habitat preferences are, and how they fare after being released.

In addition to turtles, Jonathan has an interest in snakes and large cats. In his final year as Wildlife Fellow, he hopes to work more directly with the large mammal camera trapping project. With new Panthera cameras stationed throughout the property, his involvement will likely become a reality in the very near future.

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

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! 

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.

Renovations to the BFREE Bunkhouse are Underway

BFREE Bunkhouse under renovation on June 11, 2020

The Bunkhouse has served as the main dormitory for guests visiting BFREE since its completion in 1998 when it began as a 40’x12’ two-room structure. In 2008, it was expanded to double the original size and consequently doubled occupancy sleeping up to 24 people. Located just over 200m from the river and situated under the hulking shade of a massive 140-ft Ceiba tree, the bunkhouse is the first stop for most visitors as they arrive at BFREE.

Bunkhouse renovations have been scheduled since last year and were made possible by a generous donor who specifically designated funds for infrastructure improvements. While we have had to reassess many priorities this year due to COVID-19 with its sudden and extreme impact on our field season, we are grateful to be able to move forward with the much-needed improvements to this essential structure. It is important to us that we are ready for our guests as soon as they can return and that includes comfortable accommodations!

The new layout will create six private rooms, each sleeping up to six guests, and will include a 10’x32′ observation deck facing the Ceiba tree which will serve as a great spot to view wildlife like Harpy eagles.  The bunkhouse is being designed to accommodate visitors of all kinds, not just student groups, and to create additional common space for guests to relax together. The staff has thus far completed the first step of the renovation which was to pour the concrete footers. They are now in phase two, dismantling everything from the floor up while also constructing the frame for the expansion.

One of the most exciting aspects of the renovation is that this building is almost completely “zero waste.” The bunkhouse is being dismantled board by board and each piece of material is being evaluated to be reused; including boards, nails, and the roofing. If the material is not reused on the bunkhouse it will be repurposed for other projects throughout the property. With the exception of the new roofing and tongue and groove flooring, which were purchased, the other material is coming straight from the BFREE property. We salvaged three dead trees from the property and all have been milled into lumber by chainsaw.

We are so incredibly excited about the improved accommodations and we look forward to seeing the place full of guests again!

Introducing Jonathan Dubon, BFREE Science & Education Fellow

Jonathan Dubon, BFREE Science & Education Fellow

BFREE is pleased to introduce our newest Science & Education Fellow, Jonathan Dubon. Jonathan grew up in Independence Village about 20 miles east of BFREE and has known from an early age that he wanted a career that would include his passions for field experience and outdoor adventures. This passion grows from visiting his Grandma’s farm near Punta Gorda as a child where he has many fond memories of exploring her land and being exposed to nature. Because of this childhood experience and influence from his brother who is also involved in conservation, Jonathan went on to study Natural Resource Management at Independence Junior College. He graduated with his Associate’s Degree in June 2019 and with the highest honors in his department.

Jonathan’s first visit to BFREE was on a school field trip with Independence Junior College in February 2019. Jonathan says, “I fell in love with the place and it’s environment – at that very moment I knew I wanted to come back. I like everything about being at BFREE including the friendly staff, the environment, everything is just very welcoming. This is exactly where I imagine my dream job.” He returned one year later as a volunteer in the Spring 2020 Hicatee Health Assessments where he assisted in the 5-day health check.

Jonathan, second from the left, back row, along with fellow classmates from IJC on a field course at BFREE in February 2019.

Now, in the second week of his fellowship, Jonathan shares, “It’s so exciting to be here at BFREE right now. I only know a little bit about the biology of Hicatee Turtles and I am overly excited that every day I now get to learn something new about them. It is thrilling to work with the hatchlings; I am also eager to learn about all the other animals found here at BFREE such as birds, snakes, and mammals. I also really enjoy hearing the birds singing early in the morning while working by the pond. “

Jonathan says, “my message to all Belizeans is that the Hicatee are especially important to our ecosystem, and it is critical that we protect them – Belize has the honor of being the final stronghold for these turtles, who are the last in their lineage. “

We are thankful to the Turtle Survival Alliance for their funding of the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship. This is the second fellowship funded by the TSA; the first was awarded to Jaren Serano who served as the BFREE Science and Education Fellow from January 2018 – December 2019. The Science and Education Fellowship is assigned to support the operations in one of three areas at BFREE – the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center, the cacao agroforestry project or the protected areas program. It is a two-year immersive work training opportunity for recent Belizean junior college and college graduates who exhibit leadership potential combined with a clear interest in the conservation of the country’s natural resources

Jonathan hands an adult hicatee turtle from the breeding pond to BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin during the Spring 2020 Hicatee Health Assessments.