Roses and Thorns: A Reflection on Life at BFREE by Cacao Fellow Graduate

There are experiences in life that can be considered life-changing, but nothing compares to spending about 70% of two years in the rainforest. I can confidently say that the two-year fellowship program at BFREE has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life.

It all began when I came across a Facebook ad about an opening at BFREE for a Fellowship position. Applying was a no-brainer for me, as I was tired of being confined to a small cubicle in my previous job. A few days after applying, I received an email from Heather inviting me for an interview. I vividly remember my first trip on the entrance road – I was supposed to get a ride in and ended up helping push a pickup truck along with some of BFREE’s staff. I won’t pretend that I enjoy traveling the entrance road, but as with most things in life, there are silver linings. For instance, I began to consider the 14 km trek as a great workout—truly a win-win situation!

To call myself a “naturalist” would be an understatement; many times, I find myself at peace when I’m lost in nature. If I’m not alone, I’m probably with Nelly, Heather, or Mario, engaged in a friendly competition of bird recognition—mind you, I had never been involved in birding before. The abundance of bird species at BFREE intrigued me, leading me to learn as much as I could from these amazing creatures. Another wonderful aspect of working at BFREE has been the chance to share cultural experiences with guests from other countries. Meeting and connecting with people who are passionate about conserving the environment is an incredible feeling.

The most significant highlight of my time at BFREE was being mentored by Mr. Erick Ac, a prominent agronomist from Guatemala. Under his guidance, I learned everything from seed germination to pruning grafted Criollo cacao trees in the field. BFREE’s relatively new initiative of propagating wild cacao in degraded landscapes is fascinating, as it aims to tackle two main problems. The first is preserving cacao genetics, and the second is restoring degraded landscapes through agroforestry.

I was initially skeptical about the project, but now, three years later, the Crioco staff has harvested a few hundred kilograms of wet cacao beans. This success shows that the project is achieving its objectives. I am even more enthusiastic because of this, and I strived to maintain accurate data to support the extension of this project. Such efforts align with BFREE’s vision of research and addressing scientific questions within the Bladen and Maya Mountain region.

The cacao program has opened up other remarkable opportunities for me. BFREE generously awarded me a partial scholarship to complete my undergraduate degree at the University of Belize. Moreover, I’ve been honored with a unique scholarship from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), where I am pursuing a master’s degree in Entomology and Plant Pathology. This special scholarship is a result of the collaboration between UTK and BFREE in the cacao program over the past few years.

My aim is to carry forward my research in cacao production and contribute insights into pest and disease management. The support that I have received exemplifies BFREE’s dedication to help provide opportunities for marginalized groups. I’m deeply thankful for the invaluable learning experiences I gained at BFREE and appreciative of the fellowship opportunity offered by Mr. Jacob Marlin and Ms. Heather Barrett. I’m also grateful to the friends and professors I’ve met along the way, especially Dr. Denita Hadziabdic Guerry and Dr. DeWayne Shoemaker, for their significant contributions to my academic development.

Jaren Serano returns to BFREE as Dermatemys Program Coordinator

By Jaren Serano

During my first stint at BFREE, I had the privilege of witnessing the positive impact that organizations like this have on land conservation, wildlife protection, and the conservation efforts among the local communities in Belize. When I joined as BFREE’s first Science and Education Fellow in 2017, I was immediately drawn to their ongoing Dermatemys mawii (Hicatee) captive breeding program. At the time, this was still a relatively new collaboration between BFREE and the Turtle Survival Alliance, and we were experiencing our second year of hatching success.

My desire to contribute to the conservation efforts and help safeguard this species motivated me to be a part of this program. Through my active engagement and with guidance provided by Thomas Pop, the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center Manager, I acquired priceless firsthand experience working closely with the Hicatee turtles, both in controlled environments and their natural habitats. At the captive breeding facility, my daily responsibilities involved caring for and handling the turtles, which allowed me to develop skills in husbandry and effective management practices.

One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job was assisting in the care and rearing of hatchlings and juveniles. Being responsible for the well-being of over a hundred critically endangered Hicatee hatchlings instilled in me a profound sense of purpose and pride. Additionally, as a fellow, I had the privilege to gain insights from and work alongside various biologists, including Dr. Donald McKnight, Dr. Day Ligon and Denise Thompson. Together, we conducted population assessments for the Hicatee turtle within river systems in Belize. This not only enabled me to observe wild Hicatees for the first time but also provided a platform to engage with local anglers and raise awareness about the species’ conservation status.

After graduating from the fellowship program at BFREE, I traveled to the states to complete my bachelor’s degree in Sustainability at Jacksonville University (JU) under the advisement of Dr. John Enz. Being part of this program gave me a deeper understanding of the requirements needed to make a significant impact in today’s conservation field. Additionally, it offered me the opportunity to connect with a diverse group of like-minded individuals, some of whom have since become lifelong friends.

Following my accomplishments at JU, I then applied to and was accepted at the University of Florida (UF) for my master’s degree program. Throughout this period, I collaborated closely with Dr. Ray Carthy, Dr. Nichole Bishop, and Dr. Todd Osborne. My main focus was directed towards researching aspects of the reproductive ecology of loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). While at UF, I worked as a graduate research assistant at the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, which allowed me to further develop as a student of nature and has provided me with a solid scientific foundation. This dynamic environment has sharpened my analytical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and aptitude for effectively communicating scientific information and wildlife management programs to my peers in the sciences as well as the general public.

Now, as the Dermatemys Program Coordinator, I am incredibly enthusiastic about my new role. I am confident that my educational background, ever-expanding knowledge of the Hicatee turtle, and experience in wildlife conservation management will allow me to make immediate contributions to the ongoing efforts to prevent further decline of this critically endangered species.

Amidst a world challenged by increasing anthropogenic pressures, Belize is blessed to still possess approximately 55 percent of forest cover and a vibrant array of wildlife. As a proud Belizean, I derive immense satisfaction from actively participating in conservation initiatives within our country, striving to maintain the integrity of our diverse ecosystems. Over time, I have developed a profound respect for the ecological and cultural importance of D. mawii in Belize. This has fueled my determination to assist in implementing effective management practices that can strengthen this unique relationship and collaborate towards the restoration of declining and extirpated populations of D. mawii throughout its entire range.

My goal is to help promote governmental recognition of the Hicatee, with the hope that existing regulations can better align with the long-term sustainability of the species. Additionally, I aim to actively engage the community and foster a nationwide appreciation for D. mawii as a crucial member of Belize’s riparian ecosystems, rather than solely viewing it as a food resource. I firmly believe that by working together and actively collaborating, we can save the Hicatee from the brink of extinction.

With Thanks

Special Thanks to the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) for their continuous support of the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship Program. Also, thanks to TSA and the Disney Conservation Fund for their financial support to launch the position of Dermatemys Program Coordinator.

BFREE staff at Jaguar Lanes Bowling Alley in Maya Beach. This was for our 2018 Staff Retreat.

The Fascinating Characteristics of Sundew

By Mark Canti

The astonishing characteristics of sundews are unbelievable to me. During two research trips with Dr. Rob Naczi of NY Botanical Garden, I learned a lot about plants, especially sedges. I was introduced to carnivorous plants and found them fascinating. I was shocked to learn that while walking around, we have been stepping on a lot of different species of exciting plants!

The Sundew was one of the common plants I saw in the field and it caught my attention because of the uniqueness of its survival skills. It is a variable perennial plant (meaning the plant can adapt to any environment and that the plant will grow, die out and grow again). I learned a lot of the basics of this plant in the field and, because of my interest, I continued my research after returning from my most recent research trip.

According to the International Carnivorous Plant Society, Sundews are generally about 4 cm in diameter. An individual leaf is about 5 mm long and 4 mm wide with erected scapes from the center of the plant about 8 cm long. The sepals have hairy glands that secrete sundew glue and the plant colouration ranges from pale green to deep red. It has approximately six pink or white small flowers that are constantly self-pollinating. Sundews have almost 200 different species making it one of the most diverse of all carnivorous plants.

Sundews capture their prey from glistening drops of dew at the tips of the hairy-like tentacles on their leaves. A healthy plant can have a hundred dew drops which makes it look gorgeously dainty and beautiful, but it is a sticky death trap for small insects. They have the ability to move or bend their tentacles in contact to respond to their edible prey. When an insect is trapped, it either succumbs to death through exhaustion or through suffocation as the fluid from the plant releases encloses, and blocks the opening of the insect exoskeletons. Death usually occurs within 15 minutes. (Photo credit left: internet image)

Meanwhile, the plant has trapped its prey, the plant secretes enzymes that will dissolve the insects which will free the nutrients that are trapped within its body. Eventually, the nutrient mixture is then absorbed through the leaf surfaces to be used by the rest of the plant.

Antique botany illustration: Drosera rotundifolia, round-leaved sundew

This is a plant that is common throughout the country of Belize and can be found in wet pine savannas. Discovering Sundews made me realize that many of us in Belize have no idea how extraordinary nature can be. This experience made me curious to learn about the multiple thousands of plant species that exist in this country.

As the Cacao Fellow for BFREE’s agroforestry program, I have gained a deep appreciation and understanding of nature. As someone who loves Belize, I’m dedicated to protecting our beautiful environment by understanding and appreciating the natural world around us. This research has taught me about the significance of each organism’s existence and its essential role in maintaining the environment.

Brittnacher, J. (2017, July). Drosera spatulata Species Complex. International Carnivorous Plant Society. https://www.carnivorousplants.org/cp/taxonomy/Droseraspatulata

Collaborative Cacao Research Project

By Roxanna Chen

BFREE in collaboration with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK) facilitated a cacao research project at the BFREE’s Field Station in May 2023. The primary objective of the collaboration was to co-design and enhance post-harvest practices and methods for Criollo Cacao which is intercropped and shade-grown in several experimental plots within the property. Criollo is a Spanish term that means “of local origin” or native. Criollo beans are usually white to pale pink in color, and it is a pure cacao variety.

The four-day project was made feasible by several participants including the Crioco staff, myself as BFREE’s Advanced Cacao Fellow, and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville student researchers and professors. The project involved a variety of activities that ranged from harvesting ripe criollo pods to pod-cracking and bean extraction, to fermenting and data collection. The collaboration commenced with the Crioco staff playing an instrumental role in the cacao field specifically in teaching the students how to appropriately harvest pods. This activity is considered a crucial first step for good quality and fermentation because the pod must be mature, healthy, and not damaged. Good quality also means good chocolate!

Thereafter, I taught the students our recommended methods for pod cracking and bean extraction, as well as fermentation set-up and preparation. The students were very hands-on and did not hesitate to share useful ideas and information regarding data collection during fermentation and the application and usage of instruments. The exchange between both partners was mutually beneficial for everyone involved.

The student researchers received many first-hand experiences; these include the ability to differentiate the four criollo phenotypes grown at BFREE, harvesting and extraction of cacao beans from pods and most importantly getting practical during fermentation. Additionally, as the advanced cacao fellow, I became more knowledgeable about fermentation chemistry and terminologies and was exposed to multiple lectures on basic food components relating to Food Science and its applications to cacao. 

Special Thanks

Thank you to everyone from UTK who participated in making the project a success. Professors: Dr. DeWayne Shoemaker, Dr. Denita Hadziabdic-Guerry, and Dr. Kevin Moulton Student Researchers: Holly Brabazon, Celeste Chadwick, Amber Gunter, Laura Whaley, and Madison Fomich.

Cacao Fellow Assists in Country-wide Sedge Survey

by Mark Canti

Last month, I participated in a research expedition to understand biogeography and documentation of sedges in Belize and to fill in gaps that previous botanists have left unexplored and unidentified. My role throughout this research was to help navigate, locate, and identify existing, new, or unusual sedges, but most importantly to learn and acquire knowledge and experience. Dr. Robert Naczi of the New York Botanical Garden led the research project and I traveled as his assistant. Together, we visited multiple savannah ecosystems from the mid to the northern, western, and eastern parts of the country.

Sedges are perennial plants that are commonly found in shallow waters or moist soils. People confuse them with grasses because they resemble grasses and often grow along with grasses. Much of the vegetation in lagoons and savannas are sedges and they provide food and shelter for wildlife. Studies on pastures in Canada where sedges and grasses are both present have shown that cattle prefer to graze on sedges more than grasses. Analysis has shown that sedges are more nutritious than grasses.

Rob has been traveling to Belize for the past 18 years. His first visit to Belize was in 2005 to prepare for a course that he anticipated teaching. He visited various parts of the country and realized that it would be a wonderful place to study sedges due to the countries’ rich biodiversity, especially for plants. Eventually, when he started teaching the Belize course, he brought his students to do research projects that focused on sedges in the savanna near BFREE.

Over the years, Rob has noticed increased deforestation in Belize. Previously wild areas are now becoming urbanized: we are seeing an increase in human occupancy and agriculture, also more dangerously, with the expansion of international drug trafficking. You’ll also note in the picture at the top of the article, Mark is shown in a savanna recently cleared for sand mining, an increasing threat to savanna vegetation.

On each trip he makes, he finds additional sedge species. Most have previously been discovered elsewhere and named but have not been recorded in places he explored and are therefore range extensions for the species. The newly identified locations allow him to better understand and gain knowledge about different types of savannas.

Mark and Rob’s explorations included many wetlands such as this shallow pond.

Usually, Rob travels to Belize during a part of the dry season – March, April, and May. Obviously, there are sedges that flower and fruit during the rainy season, which his schedule causes him to miss. In the future, he hopes to explore during the rainy season.

Interestingly, many sedges are fire-dependent plants, which means they require fire to flower and fruit. When there is no fire, the competing vegetation tends to grow high enough that it will shade the sedges. Therefore, sedges will go dormant for a few years but will eventually die if they receive shade for too long. Also, fire suppression for too long will cause the fuel load to build up, which can lead to a much more intense and catastrophic fire. 

For me, this trip was a remarkable experience. I have learned to exercise and improve research and important observational skills. Last year, I also assisted Rob in his research. We focused on the southern coast of Monkey River Village, which is the northern part of the Toledo District. We had an easygoing trip whereby we easily accessed the targeted locations via boat.

This year it was a much longer and more intense, but exciting, experience. We drove miles and miles into savannas through rough roads but almost every location was successful. Everything was new to me. I learned so much and got to explore amazing parts of my country. I saw a vast amount of wildlife and added bird species to my birding list that I have never seen before. Lastly, I learned more about sedges and other plant species than I could have imagined. Overall, this experience has been a highlight of my Fellowship Program.

Thank you to Dr. Robert Naczi

The staff of BFREE would like to extend their gratitude to Dr. Rob Naczi. We are grateful that he has faithfully returned to Belize and to BFREE over the past 18 years to continue his important research. Dr. Naczi has always been willing to teach motivated staff members to assist him in the field and has created opportunities for many of us to participate, even if only for an afternoon.

All photos by Dr. Rob Naczi and Mark Canti

Header Photo Caption: Mark in a savanna recently cleared for sand mining, an increasing threat to savanna vegetation.

BFREE Welcomes Roxanna Chen as First Advanced Cacao Fellow

We are pleased to introduce BFREE’s newest staff member, Advanced Cacao Fellow, Roxanna Chen. Roxanna will spend the next year and a half investigating and determining best post-harvest processing of the criollo cacao at BFREE as well as characterizing the different varieties. She will also get training from experts and become BFREEs chocolate lab technician. During this time, she will work with BFREE staff and our university partners to experiment with, and ultimately, determine best practices for processing Criollo cacao from bean to bar grown in the cacao agroforestry project. 

Prior to entering the Fellowship Program this month, Roxanna was already interacting with student groups and university collaborators. She spent time with students from Bethel University during January (pictured above) and has interacted with most groups and researchers in her months working in the BFREE kitchen. During the visit to BFREE by Penn State faculty, she participated in a Sensory/Tasting class offered to BFREE staff by Helene Hopfer, Food Science Researcher. Soon after, Roxanna was offered a scholarship to participate in the Penn State Chocolate Short Course this coming June.

About Roxanna

Roxanna was born in San Pedro Columbia, a Qeq’chi Maya community in the Toledo District. In 2013, she received an Associate’s degree in Business Science and began working as a part-time cashier. While employed at Maya Mountain Cacao Ltd, she further pursued her studies and attained a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management. During her seven-year tenure at MMC, she moved up the ranks from a part-time cashier and became General Manager of the company in 2019. Roxanna has great passion for cacao and the conservation of the environment.  

From a tender age, she developed a great interest in nature and enjoyed the beauty of flora and fauna. Her interests lies in Science, creative arts, and food processes. In 2022, she received an Advanced Cake Decorating Certificate and a Fine Art Bartender Certificate. She later joined the Belize Red Cross as a volunteer and became a part-time helper at a non-profit organization called Xucaneb. Her involvement at Xucaneb (Maya word meaning “sacred mountain”) allowed her to witness and participate in conservation efforts; to reforest the river banks of San Pedro Columbia with a primary focus of restoring the river ecosystem and its river bank. In early 2023, she came to BFREE Field Station as an assistant cook and now works as an Advanced Cacao Fellow. 

About the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship Program

Established in 2017, the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship Program is a two-year immersive training opportunity for recent Belizean junior college and college graduates who exhibit leadership potential combined with a clear interest in the conservation of the country’s natural resources.  The BFREE Fellows Program is designed to improve leadership and professional skills, as well as build lasting, sustainable partnerships between emerging Belizean leaders, BFREE and its many conservation partners. 

BFREE Fellows are given a two-year work assignment in one of three focal areas: Wildlife Conservation, Cacao Agroforestry, or Protected Areas Management (this focal area is currently in development). Participants build a broad network with international students, professors and researchers who utilize the BFREE field station for their study abroad courses and their scientific research projects. Throughout the program, there are opportunities to be mentored by staff and visiting researchers as well as to receive specialized training. 

By working in the field alongside seasoned professionals on a daily basis, BFREE Fellows have the opportunity to become budding experts in their area of focus. Fellows are based at the BFREE Field Station and Privately Protected Area which adjoins close to 1.5 million acres of lowland tropical rainforest. BFREE is dedicated to the preservation and conservation of the Maya Mountains Massif through environmental education, outreach, training, and research.

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)