The Science of Fine Chocolate

by Jacob Marlin

The flavor attributes of chocolate, especially fine flavor chocolate, is determined by numerous factors: 1. Genetics of the cacao, 2. The farming practices implemented, 3. The location, biophysical features, and climactic conditions of where it is grown (also called terrior), 4. The time of harvest, 5. Fermentation protocols, 6. Drying methods, and finally the chocolate-making including, 7. Roasting and, 8. The final recipe. Each of these factors has tremendous variability and requires specific expertise to successfully implement the management and interventions.

Fermentation is a critical aspect in flavor development and final acidity of a finished chocolate bar. You can’t hide bad fermentation in chocolate. If the beans are over-fermented, they yield an undesirable, wet “barnyard” type flavor. If they are under-fermented, the results are an astringent attack on your tastebuds that causes your mouth to pucker.

Even with the best farming practices producing the finest beans, if the fermentation is not done to its fullest potential the results will be disappointing at best. Our work to determine this important stage in producing some of the world’s finest chocolate is an important part of our current efforts.

BFREE began a collaboration with Dancing Lion Chocolate in Manchester, New Hampshire, to begin to determine the best fermentation protocols for Criollo cacao. Crioco Cacao’s Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam, and I managed the fermentation experiment at the BFREE Field Station. Because there is no information on successful fermentation of the rare and ancient Criollo cacao, we had to undertake our methods based on limited information. We instituted three separate fermentation protocols and upon completion sent these batches to Dancing Lion Chocolate, where my good friend and colleague Rich Tango-Lowy and my son, Shaman Marlin, processed the beans into chocolate using a standardized roasting methodology. These three profiles were then molded into exquisite artfully designed hand crafted limited release specialty chocolate bars. Dancing Lion Chocolates is not your typical chocolate shop. Each bar is a work of art – visually dazzling and delicious. And chocolate is made in small batches and only one time in that exact way, they never repeat the same recipe twice. Rich has used BFREE Criollo cacao in the past on a few specialty bars and bonbons. After visiting BFREE with his wife, Torene, and Dancing Lion’s Baker, Donna McLintock, we began a conversation on how to improve and refine our fermentation methods.

I’m thrilled to announce that our initial collaboration was a success. Chocolate from these three different batches will be sold this year through Dancing Lion Chocolate. I’m especially proud to acknowledge Shaman Marlin who has been working at Dancing Lion for over a year and was responsible for making the chocolate in these bars! A very limited supply will be available in the shop and online after Thanksgiving. The bars can be identified by Criollo I, Criollo II, and Criollo III.

By determining the best fermentation protocols based on continuous feedback, revisions can be made until the process reveals the unique flavor attributes intrinsic to this unique cacao. In 2016, the BFREE cacao beans and chocolate were designated “heirloom fine flavor” by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP), one of only 16 cacao varieties throughout the world to receive such an honor. In order to get designated “Heirloom Fine Flavor”, beans are submitted to HCP blind, meaning the chocolate maker, in collaboration with Guittard Chocolate, does not know where the beans were sourced. Once made into chocolate liquor and chocolate, it is tasted, also blind, by a 9-person panel made up of the world’s most expert chocolate tasters. If the flavor meets a very high mark, the beans are designated Heirloom. Based on those results and additional feedback and reviews, we are confident that this Criollo cacao is unlike any other cacao in the world, and this inspires us to continue our efforts to master the process, from the nursery to fermentation to chocolate bar.

From Bean to Bar: BFREE’s cacao program bears fruit

by Jacob Marlin

Over the past three years, BFREE has been doing research and experimentation to develop a model for farming the BFREE Criollo cacao, under its for-profit – Crioco Cacao, LLC. The goal is to create healthy and productive trees that yield cacao beans that are ultimately made into some of the world’s best Heirloom Fine Flavor chocolate. So, we are experimenting with creating conditions in the farm as well post-harvesting protocols including fermentation and drying techniques. Our work is challenging and requires a lot of innovation. Primarily because this cacao has been growing in isolation on BFREE property for thousands of years and has not been worked with by anyone in the cacao industry.

Specifically, experiments have focused on fine-scaled management of the farm setting to provide the optimal conditions for cacao tree health. This includes planting and managing temporary and permanent shade trees, as this variety of cacao has been growing under the natural canopy of the rainforest for thousands of years, and requires a lot of shade. To date, we have planted over 10,000 criollo cacao trees and an equal amount of shade trees representing 25 soil enriching native forest and fruit tree species. The work begins in the nursery with very specific protocols including grafting robust seedlings with clonal material from the most productive criollo trees on site, and continues as the young trees are transplanted into the farm. Specific pruning protocols, of both the cacao and shade trees is a constant endeavor, and careful management is required as each tree has its own unique set of conditions and expressions. Organic nutrition is applied throughout the year, and regular observations and adaptive management takes place as the dry and rainy seasons set in. Extensive data is collected throughout the year, providing the basis for improving management and adapting the conditions to best reflect the perceived requirements of this rare and unusual cacao.   

Historically, much of the available literature states that cacao trees with a high percentage of criollo genetics are very difficult to get optimal productivity because of low yield, are prone to disease and pests, and are difficult to cultivate on a commercial scale. However, initial results from our work suggest otherwise. We are finding that with careful and specific management activities, this unique variety of 100% Criollo genetics shows promise that it can be highly productive given the right conditions.

After three years of trial and error plus the hard work of our staff as well as meaningful contributions from expert advisors, we are narrowing in on the exact conditions for the trees to thrive. As the pictures below illustrate, trees in the best condition are showing very high levels of productivity after just two years and promise to bear fruit in the years to come. These early results keep us working toward our goal to create a thriving cacao agroforestry system which restores forests and provides habitat for a wide array of wildlife species while also providing some of the world’s finest chocolate to the consumer while simultaneously providing a sustainable climate smart source of revenue for BFREE to further achieve our important conservation work.


BFREE TURTLE SURVEY

LONG TERM TURTLE SURVEY IN THE JUNGLE

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

Participants will be supporting researchers in the second annual survey of a 10-year long-term monitoring project to provide basic demographic and population information. Turtles will be captured using various methods, including hand capture and baited traps, and will be given unique identification marks and injected with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags for future identification. You’ll be joined by herpetologists and experts in the field from both the US and Belize. In 2021, the BFREE and TSA-NAFTRG Team marked, measured, and safely released 272 turtles. Turtles found included White-lipped Mud Turtle, Tabasco Mud Turtle, Scorpion Mud Turtle, Mexican Giant Musk Turtle, Central American Snapping Turtle, Furrowed Wood Turtle, and the Meso-American Slider – representing seven of Belize’s nine freshwater turtles.

We look forward to you joining us in Belize for the June/July 2023 BFREE and TSA-NAFTRG Turtle Survey in the jungle!


DATES

June 30 – July 10, 2023 – OPEN

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

REQUIREMENTS

  • Able to hike between 5 and 10 miles a day in 90-degree weather with 100% humidity.
  • Able to lift and carry 40 lbs. for periods of time.
  • Willingness to get dirty and to put long days in.
  • All participants are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

CONTACT

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

emunscher@turtlesurvival.org

ITINERARY

  • Day One: Arrive at BZE by 1:30 PM, fly to INB at 3:30 PM (exact flight time to be updated in 2023). Transportation provided from INB to the BFREE Field Station. Settle into rooms and unpack before dinner.
  • Day Two: Tour the BFREE Facility and familiarize yourself with the various trails and facilities. Free time to relax and swim in the crystal-clear water of the Bladen River or explore one of BFREE’s many conservation initiatives, including the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a captive breeding facility for the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, locally known in Belize as the Hicatee.
  • Day Three – Ten: Turtle surveys throughout BFREE’s 1,153-acre private reserve. Turtle surveys will primarily take place on the ground. There will be one or two days of river surveys but most data is collected on land.
  • Day Eleven: Breakfast followed by transportation to INB for a domestic flight back to BZE.

COSTS

The costs are $1,600 per participant.

Cost Includes:

  • Double occupancy in BFREE’s newest accommodation, the Hammock, which features an open-air veranda connecting six private rooms. Linens, pillows, and blankets provided.
  • Three chef-prepared meals per day.
  • Guided night hikes and tours of BFREE’s conservation programs
  • Round-trip 4×4 transportation from Savannah Airport (INB) to the BFREE Field Station and back on the day of departure.
  • Fees paid to this program not only support your participation in critical turtle research for Belize but also have a direct impact on the country’s next generation of conservation leaders. Funding from this TSA-NAFTRG-BFREE research program helps to support Belizean participation in scientific research at BFREE.

REGISTER

Space is limited for this incredible opportunity; make your deposit today to secure your spot. Deposits are due by April 3, 2023. The final payment is due by May 1st, 2023. To register for this program, read the Booking Terms and Conditions on the next page.



BOOKING TERMS AND CONDITIONS

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

Covered Costs.

Participation in the 2023 Turtle Survey at BFREE is $1,600 per person. These covered costs per person include accommodations, meals, and guided tours of BFREE. Program Fees Do Not include the following: international airfare to BZE, roundtrip domestic airfare with Maya Island Air to Savannah (INB), soft drinks and beers, COVID-19 Tests or travel insurance, gratuities/souvenirs – at your discretion.

Deposit and Final Payment.

A $500 USD Non-Refundable initial deposit will secure your spot on the trip, or you may choose to pay in full. The remaining balance is due 60-days before the retreat start date. Failure to make payment by the applicable due date may forfeit your booking on the trip and be treated as a cancellation. If a booking is made less than 60-days before the trip start date, the full amount must be paid at the time of booking.

Payment Schedule.

The $500 deposit is due for all participants by April 3, 2023. Final payment for Participants is due by May 1, 2023. Payments should be made at www.givebutter.com/turtletour

Cancellations.

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

  • Refund requests more than 60-days before the program start date will receive a full refund minus the $500 deposit.
  • Refund requests more than 30-days before the program start date will receive a 50% refund minus the $500 deposit.
  • Refund requests less than 30-days before the program start date are non-refundable.
  • Cancellations 30-days or less to the program start date due to events directly relating to COVID-19, specifically international travel restrictions and border closings, will receive a 50% refund minus the deposit.

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

Travel to BFREE.

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

COVID-19 Policy.

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

Info Session.

Turtle Survival Alliance and Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education will host an informational virtual meeting in 2023 for all
confirmed Participants prior to survey. Meeting Date: TBA

Billboards installed across Belize share a very important message, Save the Hicatee.

By Robynn Phillips, BFREE Engagement and Communications Coordinator

BFREE, our committed partnering organizations and this year’s Hicatee Awareness Month Planning Committee are excited to announce that two (2) billboards have been strategically installed along Belize’s Western Highway. 

The billboards were printed and installed by Big Signs Belize at the following locations:

  1. Mile 47, George Price Highway facing west.
  2. Mile 57, George Price Highway, Iguana Creek Roundabout facing north on the left side.

The billboard design was created by the 2022 Hicatee Awareness Month Planning Committee and it reads, “Save the Hicatee from Extinction: Follow Belize’s Fisheries Regulations.” The billboard will be on display for one year through October 2023. The goal of the billboards are to raise awareness through a larger platform, aiming to reach more people. We hope the billboards will bring awareness to Hicatee conservation not only during Hicatee Awareness Month but throughout the entire year. 

The billboards feature two dedicated conservation professionals, Mr. Thomas Pop and Mr. Barney Hall, each holding an adult Hicatee turtle. These gentlemen are responsible for the daily care of all turtles housed at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at the BFREE Field Station in Toledo. The Committee would like to point out that the turtles pictured are an adult male and female that live at the HCRC. Hicatee turtles don’t reach adulthood and become reproductive until they are approximately 16 years of age.  

The HCRC is a captive breeding facility for this critically endangered species of river turtle and is a collaboration between BFREE, Turtle Survival Alliance, and the Belize Fisheries Department that began in 2013. The purpose of the HCRC is to conduct research on the reproductive biology and nesting ecology of the species in captivity. This information learned at the HCRC helps guide conservation efforts in wild populations. The HCRC has produced over 1,000 eggs and 800 hatchlings, of which over 400 have been released into the wild.

Studies over the last decade have determined that there are a few healthy populations of Hicatee existing in Belize’s protected areas. However, populations in most unprotected water bodies are continuing to decline at alarming rates. The billboards serve as a reminder that for the Hicatee to continue to survive in Belize, it needs everyone’s support. Further, it recognizes a few of the individuals who are currently working to preserve the species for future generations. 

A special thank you to the US Fish and Wildlife Services for providing funding and to Big Signs Belize for working with the Committee on the design and then later printing and installing the billboards onsite. Both of these important contributions allowed the Billboards to be a reality and an ultimate dream come true!!

Pollination and Paternity Testing

By Holly Brabazon

Dr. DeWayne Shoemaker and Holly Brabazon of University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Would you believe that small biting midges are cacao’s main pollinator? They’re only about the size of a pin head, and they don’t fly very well either, but with how small cacao flowers are, and how they’re shaped, cacao has to rely on the tiny midge to pollinate its flowers. Unfortunately, midges worldwide do a poor job pollinating all the flowers made by cacao trees. Only a small percentage of flowers get pollinated, and even then, only a few of those pollinated flowers receive enough pollen (about 115 pollen grains) to make a fully formed, viable pod.

A first step to better understand pollination in cacao is to study pollination of wild-growing cacao. To date, only a few studies exist on wild cacao pollination, and many questions about pollination remain unanswered. For instance, we still do not know how many times a flower needs to be visited to be fully pollinated, how often flowers are pollinated with pollen from the same tree, or how pollen is moved around the forest. Not to mention, we only have a rough guess of how far a pollinator can even travel. These are some of the questions I will investigate as part of my PhD research.

To start answering these questions, we will gather genetic information from all the wild cacao trees growing in the forest at BFREE by sequencing the DNA of these trees. There are about 300 wild trees at BFREE, and thanks to Elmer Tzalam, Mark Canti, and the cacao team’s hard work, each and every tree has been visited, georeferenced using GPS, and labeled with a metal tag. We were able to use these GPS coordinates to find and collect leaves from many of the trees at BFREE in June 2022. Now, Lenardo Ash, a BFREE Cacao Science Fellow graduate and student at the University of Belize, has taken on the responsibility of collecting leaves from the remaining trees. Once the leaves are collected, we will extract and sequence their DNA. These genetic data will allow us to identify unique DNA tags for each tree, like a fingerprint, from the unique patterns in their DNA.

With these DNA “fingerprints,” we can learn a lot about the natural history of the cacao growing in the forest at BFREE. We will see how genetically diverse the population is and determine if there are unique clusters of trees with similar genetic variation. Many other cacao populations in the world have genetic mechanisms to prevent self-pollination, and we will see if those same genes are found in the BFREE trees.

We also will use these genetic data to figure out exactly which trees are pollinating other trees’ flowers, just like a paternity test. To perform our paternity experiment, we collected pods from several wild cacao trees growing out in the rainforest at BFREE. We brought those pods back to the nursery and planted the individual beans in bags of soil, making sure to carefully label each soil bag to indicate which tree the pod came from. The beans are growing in the nursery right now. Once the seedlings have leaves big enough to collect, we’ll sequence their DNA. Then we’ll do a paternity test on each seedling to identify who the father tree is that contributed the pollen. Once we know who the father tree is, we’ll map how far pollen traveled to pollinate the flower on the mother tree. This information will allow us to search for patterns of pollen moving around the forest. With pollination being a limiting factor in cacao production, our studies may ultimately help cacao farmers increase production with better pollination management. We just need to better understand how cacao pollinators move around the forest and what they are capable of in a natural rainforest environment.

We had an amazing time working with all the great people at BFREE. It was an adventure to explore a pristine rainforest searching for cacao trees, and I can’t wait to see what we learn from our results!

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.

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.

Saying goodbye to 55 Hicatee turtles

No, more like saying see you later!

By Jonathan Dubon

Watching your children grow up and eventually moving on may be hard for some, but it is something that takes place by nature. Although I am not talking about real children, it still feels the same when I release Hicatee turtles that I have helped to take care of over the past 2 years. The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) is a multi-pronged conservation effort for Hicatee, with one of the tasks being head-start rewilding.

On April 1st, I along with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop, loaded 55 juveniles and hatchlings from the HCRC at BFREE, to be taken to a creek in north central Belize – roughly 4-hours’ drive. Upon our arrival, we met with the Feste Films crew and locals from the nearby community to conduct our releases. There was a turnout of around 15 community members, including adults and children. Feste Films documented our release as a part of their upcoming four-part series ‘Belize Uncovered’ to be available online later this year. The well-known local chef, Sean Kuylen, and International Journalist, Gelareh Darabi, were the interviewers for the film and so participated in all the day’s activities.

Community participation

Before the actual release of the turtles, we gathered and talked about why we are releasing turtles and how important they are to the environment and to the culture. I asked the children “why do you think releasing juvenile Hicatee turtles is important?” I got responses such as: “because they are getting scarce”, “it is better for the wild environment” and the one that stood out the most to me was “because they are critically endangered”. We visited this village in August of 2020 and did a much smaller release, and many of the children who attended then, also attended this time around. To know that information shared a couple years ago is reiterated and remembered means that we are on the right track.

I also mentioned to the community that we are not just releasing turtles to say we do, but we are releasing them to be a part of a long-term studying and monitoring project since this is an active study site for us. All our turtles that were released have unique identification codes, which are placed by scute notching and inserting PIT tags (a microchip inserted under the skin of the turtles). This will allow us to accurately collect data for each turtle and monitor their growth rate, age and so forth.

When it was time to place the turtles in the water, we let every child who attended release a turtle. Hopefully, this will spark a love and passion in them for protecting this species. We only released 10 of the 55 at the creek’s bank where everyone was gathered. After which, Tom and I got into 2 canoes and went up stream to release the remaining 45.

Reflecting on the day

Tom was asked, “How do you feel to release these turtles? Are you sad that you are saying goodbye?” He replied, “I am happy and excited to release these turtles. Even though they have been under my watch and care since being hatched, and I have tried my best to raise these turtles, there is no better caretaker than mother nature herself. I believe with the help of the community and everyone else, we can help them to grow and reproduce on their own. Then we can say we have successfully reintroduced Hicatee turtles into the wild.”

Overall, it was a wonderful and amazing experience that not many can say they have gotten the chance to be involved in. When we were driving off, the mood of everyone was so cheerful and bright, not because we were leaving, but because we accomplished something so important and unique. I look forward to more releases in the future and spreading information with people who may not know.

World Migratory Bird Day 2022

BFREE celebrated two important bird days on Saturday, May 14 – Global Big Day and World Migratory Bird Day. Global Big Day is an opportunity for citizen scientists to gather essential data about the birds in their area. While World Migratory Bird Day uses a different theme each year to draw attention to challenges migratory birds face across the globe. The 2022 campaign focused on light pollution’s impact on migratory birds. Activities to mark the day were under the theme “Dim the Lights for Birds at Night”.

BFREE staff and students from Lakeland University were excited for the opportunity to participate. We split into three teams to cover as much of the property as possible. Lakeland University began early at the observation tower and were rewarded with an assortment of parrots, raptors and small birds.

In addition to the observation tower, we explored other areas including the garden and orchard, the Agami Lagoon, the cacao agroforest, the boundary line, and various spots along the Bladen River. During our day-long adventure, we observed some beautiful and interesting birds. A few of the many birds we enjoyed included: Common nighthawk, Swallowtail kite, Keel-billed motmot, Amazon kingfisher, Sepia-capped flycatcher, Yellow-headed parrot, and the Great currasow. We observed a total of 117 bird species. Because all participants were not eBird subscribers, we submitted one checklist at the end of the day.

The BFREE Birding Club keeps growing! BFREE participating staff were: Nelly Cadle, Thomas Pop, Sipriano Canti, Marcos Kuk, Jonathan Dubon, Mark Canti, and Heather Barrett.