The Bladen Review 2022

The 8th edition of BFREE’s annual magazine is now available in an interactive format online at Issuu! Get the latest news from the field station and learn about exciting research, conservation and education projects taking place in and around the rainforests of Belize. 

Highlights of the 2022 magazine include: updates on the conservation and outreach programs associated with cacao agroforestry, the Hicatee turtle, and Science & Education Fellowship Program.

Click here to download a PDF of The Bladen Review 2022.

Special thanks to Alyssa D’Adamo for designing this year’s magazine and to Shaman Marlin for photographing the cover image.

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.

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.