Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti, Explains the Process of Adopting a Tree from the BFREE Farm:

By Mark Canti

Hello, my name is Mark Canti. I’m the BFREE Cacao Fellow, and I oversee the cacao adoption program at BFREE in collaboration with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. I’m always very excited when I learn that a new tree has been adopted from our farm, and I am eager to tag the newly adopted tree. 

I first create a personalized tag for the tree by engraving the adopter’s name or the adopter’s chosen honoree on an aluminum tag. Then I grab my gear, including the newly created tag, a GPS device, and my camera. Next, I need to select the perfect tree. I’m looking for healthy trees that have at least 70% shade and are at least 1-1.5 meters tall. Once the tree has been selected, carefully tie the tag to a tree branch and record the GPS coordinates. Finally, comes my favorite part of the process. I’m very passionate about photography, and I really enjoy the opportunity to photograph each tree. My dream is to capture wildlife such as a beautiful bird like a warbler when I’m taking each photo. I like that the pictures I take can help the new adopters feel as close to being on our beautiful farm as possible. 

I’m very proud to be part of the Adopt a Tree program, and I would like to thank everyone who has adopted a tree from our farm so far. I hope I have the opportunity to select and photograph a tree for you! 

If you would like to adopt a tree from the BFREE Farm, please visit the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund’s website and select HCP#11.

Adopt a Cacao Tree – HEIRLOOM CACAO PRESERVATION FUND (hcpcacao.org)

Autumn Dietrich Completes 10-week Internship at BFREE

BFREE internship opportunities have returned since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. After more than two years of not hosting interns, Autumn Dietrich is welcomed with open arms to BFREE for a 10-week program from January to March 2022.

Autumn is no stranger to BFREE. She first visited on a Field Course as an undergrad with Western Michigan University in 2018. On a hike with Protected Areas Manager, Sipriano Canti, Autumn describes the experience as having changed her life. Impressed by the sheer scale of life that existed at BFREE, she hiked with her fellow classmates winding through trees, climbing embankments of creeks, and cutting through giant leaves. The hike led the group to the Ranger Observation Post on the boundary of BFREE and the neighboring farming village of Trio. Autumn’s excitement turned to dismay as she witnessed for the first time the harsh boundary line between a healthy and thriving forest and a large expanse of farmland. At this moment, she felt an overwhelming feeling that she wanted to help make a difference and help support protected areas. She knew she would come back to BFREE.

After graduation, Autumn applied to return to BFREE as an intern for three months, April – June 2020. At the time, we had no idea we would soon be facing a global pandemic. Determined not to give up on her dream to return to BFREE, Autumn’s postponed trip came to fruition this year when she traveled to Belize in January.

Autumn worked alongside BFREE staff during her ten-week internship, providing invaluable support. Her first week was spent documenting and assisting a research crew from Kutztown University. They are establishing a long-term experiment that quantifies the influence of Yucatán black howler monkeys on biodiversity and ecosystem function in Belize. She then assisted Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti on a large-scale survey of the cacao farm to determine the farm’s overall health. When not focused on collating the cacao survey data, Autumn assisted Housekeeping Manager, Ofelia Cus with preparing accommodations for visitors and BFREE Chef, Edwardo Pop in the kitchen.

In addition to supporting BFREE’s various conservation initiatives, Autumn, immersed herself in learning and experiencing Belizean culture. She was honored when Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam and his wife Gina invited her to spend a weekend with them at their home in Golden Stream. Autumn loved spending time with Elmer and Gina’s two children, Esther (12) and Travis (9), and enjoyed a delicious homemade dinner of panades, a dish that’s similar to empanadas but with a Belizean and Mayan twist.

Living full-time at BFREE for ten weeks brings plenty of challenges. The remote location and intense heat are not for the faint of heart. However, Autumn not only thrived during her two+ months, but she also brought so much joy and laughter to the BFREE community. Thank you so much, Autumn, for your sincere dedication to BFREE’s mission and for being an incredible and loyal team player. We all look forward to seeing you amongst the giant ceibas again one day! 

Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti Illustrates Passion for Wildlife

BFREE Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti, continues to shine in various disciplines at BFREE. In his first year of the two-year Cacao Fellowship program, Mark has proven to be talented in cacao grafting and data collection. Though his focus is primarily on cacao, Mark has expressed that his interests are more than just agroforestry and that he is particularly fascinated and inspired by the wildlife that surrounds him while working at BFREE.

This week, Mark continued to illustrate his passion for wildlife, working through the weekend to support BFREE’s bi-annual Hicatee Health Assessment. Last year he participated in an online Wildlife Veterinary course offered by Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC), and now he put some of the skills he learned from Dr. Isabelle to the test.

The 2022 Hicatee Health Assessments’ purpose is to determine the sex ratio of the captive-born turtles as well as collect growth data and review the overall health of a subset of turtles. Additionally, ultrasounds were performed on adult female turtles.

Donning his Hicatee Hero t-shirt, Mark fit right in with Team Hicatee and was an invaluable addition to the team. In addition to shadowing the veterinarians performing necropsies and endoscopies, Mark has helped with data collection, photographing the various activities, and supporting all of the other important aspects of the health assessment.

Determining sex ratios on captive-born Hicatee

The March bi-annual health assessment for Dermatemys mawii began on Saturday, March 5, and will wrap up on Tuesday, March 8, 2022. This is the first health assessment since March 2020 that we’ve been able to invite participants from abroad.

The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center has experienced successful breeding of our captive population of turtles since 2014. Since then, hundreds of turtles have been hatched at the facility. However, because there is little research on the species to date, we have not been able to distinguish male hatchlings from female hatchlings. To ensure a successful re-wilding program, we must verify the ratio of males to females. And, if the ratios are not correct, then we will use that information to modify our incubation methods. This health assessment is dedicated to determining our sex ratios at the HCRC.

Research shows that if a turtle’s eggs incubate below 81.86 Fahrenheit, the turtle hatchlings will be male. If the eggs incubate above 87.8° Fahrenheit, however, the hatchlings will be female. Temperatures that fluctuate between the two extremes will produce a mix of male and female baby turtles.

Turtle biologist, Dave Rostal, and Veterinarians, Elliott Jacobson and Isabelle Paquet-Durand are performing endoscopies to determine the sex of our hatchlings. Simultaneously, Bryan Windmiller and Emilie Wilder from Zoo New England are taking morphometric photos of each turtle to see if their plastron shape can help determine the sex of the turtles.

We are also collecting typical growth data on a subset of turtles as well as reviewing their overall health and performing ultrasounds on adult females.

Participants: Zoo New England Staff: Bryan Windmiller and Emilie Wilder; Visiting Veterinarian: Elliott Jacobson, Professor Emeritus, University of Florida, Visiting Biologist: Dave Rostal, Southern Georgia University, Local Veterinarian: Isabelle Paquet-Durand, Visiting Volunteers: Doris Dimmitt, Rod Dimmit, Emily Gregory, Tim Gregory, and Alexi Dart-Padover, BFREE staff: Thomas Pop, Jonathan Dubon, Mark Canti, Elmer Tzalam, Jacob Marlin, and Heather Barrett. BFREE Team Hicatee chef: Edwardo Pop.

Thanks to Zoo New England for their support of this health assessment as well as for their ongoing support for the program.

Documenting Dermatemys mawii courtship, breeding, and nesting

by Thomas Pop and Jonathan Dubon

Last year, HCRC Manager, Thomas Pop, and Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon, separately witnessed two amazing events during their daily work at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. Tom observed captive Dermatemys mawii (Hicatee turtle) exhibiting courtship behavior and mating and later Jonathan recorded a female Hicatee laying eggs. Both events were firsts for the staff of the HCRC. Tom and Jonathan describe their individual sightings below.

Tom’s Account of D. mawii mating:  

During the 3-4th week of October 2021, I observed the following events:

Searching: I noticed that several males were following a single female and thought it might have been to initiate a courtship ritual. I saw the males searching both in the mornings and in the evenings on some days. This caught my attention because Hicatee rarely come to the surface of the water and generally only poke their nostrils out to breathe. I did not see any females searching for a male partner to mate with, but we cannot discard this idea as we do not have enough evidence.

Pre-copulation: Several activities were noted before copulation during this time. I saw that the males would try to get behind the female as if they were trying to pick up on a scent or hormone. The male turtles would then try to bite the female’s tail, as well as her marginal scutes and face. Males were observed shaking their heads from side to side while in front of the female, thereafter, trying to bite the female’s face. Again, I witnessed these activities sometimes in the mornings and evenings. There has not been any evidence of individuals being territorial or aggressive towards each other at the HCRC, including male to male, until this recent observation. The only aggression noticed was between dominant males and a female that may have been ready to mate.

Copulation: I noticed that one of the male turtles would try to jump onto the female turtle when they were a little deeper in the water and hook on. The female would then walk into the shallow water around the edge, so the male’s carapace was out of the water a bit.  I used this time to take some photos and videos. I also noticed that before mating, the male would try to drag the female a little deeper into the water as opposed to the shallow edge. Being that this activity happened around the edge of the pond, the turtles made the water very murky by disturbing the dirt present. During this time, I only observed the mating twice. I also noticed that the female involved in the copulation did not seem to want to go deeper in the water. She somewhat preferred to stay around the edge of the pond and seemed stressed.

Jonathan’s account of D. mawii laying eggs:

On December 22nd, 2021, around 7:30 am, I opened the gate to the HCRC and checked around the breeding ponds for nests that might have been deposited overnight. I was stopped in my tracks when I noticed a female Hicatee on land, digging a nest hole with her hind legs. I stood still and remained quiet so as not scare the turtle. She also remained still, and after about a minute or two, she continued to clear out the nest hole. I carefully snuck up behind her and took out my phone to document the occasion. 

At first, I was stooping down but my knees started to ache, so I sat down. After a little while, I laid down a few feet behind her so that I could get some great angles of the event. She continued to remove dirt from the nest hole for 15-20 more minutes. She then laid the first of a total six (6) eggs at around 8:05 am. I noticed that she would place one of her hind legs in the hole when she was laying, to hold and gently lower the egg into the hole. After placing the egg down, she would use her hind legs, switching between the two, to move the egg around and gently set it in place. She repeated these actions in the same way for all six eggs. By 8:30 am, approximately 25 minutes later, she was finished laying. 

After setting the final egg in place, she then began to pull dirt with her hind legs from around the hole to cover it. It took her around seven minutes to cover the nest with dirt while slightly compacting it. After covering up the nest, she slowly turned around and made her way back into the water, at the 8:37 am mark. 

To my surprise, she did not seem bothered by my presence. I do know that some sea turtles allow you to observe and even touch them while they are laying eggs, but I was not sure if Hicatee turtles would do the same. I did not want to risk scaring her, so I played it safe and tried to remain invisible and quiet throughout the activity. 

Why these observations are important:

BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, was very impressed by the incredible observation and documentation skills of Tom and Jonathan. He stated, “The documentation of courtship, breeding and nesting demonstrates one of the many benefits of developing the HCRC. This species has very secretive habits and barely comes out of the water, even to nest. These events have never been documented in the wild and without the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center and its dedicated staff, this incredible behavior would likely continue to elude science.”

Watch a short video of the events described by Tom and Jonathan at the HCRC.

About the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center:

BFREE is home to the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC), a captive breeding facility for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, locally known in Belize as the Hicatee. The Hicatee is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List and is listed in the report, “Turtles in Trouble:  The World’s 25 Most Endangered Tortoises and Freshwater Turtles – 2018,” by the Turtle Conservation Coalition. The HCRC was established along with the support of the Turtle Survival Alliance in 2011. Over the last ten years, the team has grown to include several additional partners working together to study reproductive biology, nesting ecology, and the feasibility of breeding Hicatee in captivity. To learn more about BFREE’s work in protecting the Hicatee, visit www.bfreebz.org/research/#hicatee

Photography and Videos by Thomas Pop and Jonathan Dubon. Video compilation by Jonathan Dubon.

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.

First BFREE Cacao Fellow Completes Program!

BFREE Staff celebrate Lenardo’s last day as the Cacao Fellow on Thursday, August 19th.

BFREE’s first Cacao Fellow, Lenardo “Leo” Ash, is graduating from his two-year work-training program this week. He will immediately begin studies at the University of Belize, where he will work toward his Bachelor of Science in Natural Resource Management. Lenardo began his Fellowship in July 2019 under the mentorship of Cacao Program Director, Erick Ac. He spent the remainder of that year “learning by doing” and was completely immersed in all things cacao agroforestry. By early 2020, Leo was well-versed enough on the topic that he was able to start co-presenting to BFREE’s visiting students and researchers.

In March 2020, the COVID-pandemic closed BFREE to visitors and a by-product was the uncertainty of the continued employment of all of BFREE staff. When land borders closed, Erick Ac was no longer able to travel from Guatemala to Belize to oversee the cacao program. Unfortunately, the academic components of Leo’s program fell to the wayside for a while as BFREE’s administrative staff focused energy on ensuring the safety of the BFREE staff and finding the financial means to keep as many people employed as possible.

In spite of the lost opportunities for his professional development including canceled travel plans, research projects, and conferences, Lenardo showed great determination in maintaining his path toward personal and professional growth. Lenardo began practicing Spanish during virtual weekly meetings with Erick, he birded with other BFREE staff, and he participated in Herpetology 101 learning the Scientific names of all the turtle and lizard species on the reserve. He asked for reading assignments to expand his knowledge on cacao and agroforestry and eagerly accepted any opportunities to give virtual presentations to BFREE audiences.

Because of his strong interest in photography, Lenardo began photographing birds and other wildlife around the property. Last July, he spotted a ten-foot boa constrictor attacking a turkey vulture and immediately ran to get a camera and to notify other staff. Images and videos that Leo took of the predation event helped provide details for a scientific article, which will be published in the September 2021 issue of the Journal of Raptor Research.

Earlier this year, Lenardo was invited to be a part of a research team hired by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. Along with researchers from all over the world, Lenardo spent nearly six months compiling a literature review that explored cacao genetics across the globe.

Lenardo has never given up his dream of continuing his education beyond his Associate’s Degree, so he applied to the University of Belize and was accepted for August 2021 admission. Although, we are sad to lose such a valuable team member, we are excited about Lenardo’s bright future and can’t wait to see where his journey will take him.

Platt, S.G., Barrett, H.A., Ash, L., Marlin, J.A., Boylan, S.M. and Rainwater, T.R. Predation on Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura): A New Observation and Review, Journal of Raptor Research. Vol. 55(3), September 2021. Pp. TBD

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.

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!