Celebrate the 5th Annual Hicatee Awareness Month!

Please join BFREE and the Hicatee Awareness Planning Committee in celebrating the 5th Annual Hicatee Awareness Month this October! 

The Hicatee turtle is the only living species in an ancient family dating back 65 million years. This turtle has outlived the dinosaurs! Unfortunately, the Hicatee now faces a high risk of extinction due to overhunting.  The Hicatee needs greater protection. 

Hicatee Awareness Month began in 2017 by BFREE with support from our partner the Turtle Survival Alliance. Each year, the month-long celebration grows as more people become aware of our national treasure, the Hicatee turtle. 

Since 2017, Hicatee Awareness Month milestones include: 

  1. More than 2,000 pages of printed educational materials, including fact sheets, coloring pages, writing prompts, and more, have been delivered to educators across Belize. 
  2. Those same educational materials are made available for free online in our Online Toolkit and emailed to more than 500 principals and teachers each year
  3. We have distributed 400 Save the Hicatee t-shirts, 3,400 stickers, 100 “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee” DVD’s, and 60 “Herbert the Hicatee” books.
  4. Hicatee Hero volunteers hosted over 50 public events and classroom visits.
  5. More than 15 features on radio, TV, and in printed magazines and newspapers.
  6. The creation of “Mr. Hicatee,” a catchy sing-along video and song.

In 2020, we created the Hicatee Awareness Month planning committee in order to better reach Belizeans country-wide. This is an all-volunteer committee made up of BFREE staff and local artists, conservationists, professionals, primary and college teachers, and parents. 

Interested in learning more about the Hicatee turtle and participate in virtual activities during October and year-round? Then follow BFREE Belize on social media!

Online Toolkit of Educational Materials and Videos: www.bfreebz.org/hicatee-resources

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon Embarks on 2nd Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TSA-NAFTRG Turtle Survey at BFREE

Last month, the BFREE reserve became the focus of a mark-recapture survey by the Turtle Survival Alliance’s – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (TSA-NAFTRG).  After a year’s delay due to the COVID pandemic, the team was thrilled to get approval from Belize Fisheries Department to implement their research.

The TSA-NAFTRG team’s goals included establishing safe protocols for surveying freshwater turtles on the property, training BFREE staff on those methods, locating appropriate long-term survey sites and completing an initial assessment. Their timing couldn’t have been better: with the onset of rainy season, creeks were flowing, puddles formed regularly and turtles were everywhere.

The TSA-NAFTRG team of Eric Munscher, Arron Tuggle, Andy Weber, Collin McAvinchey, and J. Brian Hauge  were joined by BFREE staff, Tom Pop, and Jonathan Dubon as well as BFREE Fellowship Program Alum, Jaren Serano, who helped with the survey just prior to returning to the U.S. for grad school. TSA COO, Andrew Walde, and TSA Board Member/ WCS Coordinator for Turtle Conservation, Brian Horne, were also present and able to spend time in the field during the survey.

This initial assessment was deemed an incredible success with 227 turtles captured, marked, measured and safely released. Turtles found included Meso-American Slider, White-lipped Mud Turtle, Tabasco Mud Turtle, Scorpion Mud Turtle, Mexican Giant Musk Turtle, Central American Snapping Turtle, and the Furrowed Wood Turtle – representing seven of Belize’s nine freshwater turtles. (Fun fact: the Central American River turtle/ Hicatee is the only Belizean freshwater turtle that does not naturally occur on the BFREE reserve!)

We are grateful to the TSA-NAFTRG team for supplying us with the expertise and field equipment needed to ensure this survey continues and we look forward to their return trip next July!

March 2021 Hicatee Health Assessment

Over the last six years, the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) population of critically endangered Central American River Turtles, Dermatemys mawii, has grown from the 22 founding adults and subadults to 45 breeding adults. Sixty-four clutches of eggs have been deposited from 23 reproductive females resulting in 693 eggs, and over 650 hatchlings. The total current captive population at the HCRC is 345 individuals. Of them, 282 turtles representing 4 cohorts (2017, 2018, 2019, 2020) have been identified for release.

The 2020/2021 egg laying season is almost complete, and in addition to the numbers mentioned above,  we have added 15 clutches totaling almost 150 eggs so far. Our success in breeding and hatching large numbers of D. mawii has provided extensive morphometric data on hatchlings, determined best practices for reliably reproducing the species in captivity, and pushed us towards advancing the next phase of the project which is reintroduction of head-started animals back to their historic range. As part of that initiative, surveys of various rivers were initiated in 2019, and continued in 2020, to help identify potential release sites. In preparation for releases, disease testing of animals raised in captivity is a priority to ensure that they do not pose a health risk to existing wild D. mawii populations.

The Value of Health Assessments

Both individual and population level health screening are important considerations for these programs to ensure that the individuals selected for release are healthy and fit to increase their likelihood of survival post-release, as well as do not pose a health risk to remnant wild populations. Health assessment and pathogen screening also provide baseline data and a reference point for understanding disease ecology in captive and free-ranging animal populations.

With all this in mind, our spring 2021 Hicatee Health Assessment was geared toward sampling a subset of captive turtles in different age classes to collect samples for later diagnosis specifically looking for pathogens. The HCRC Manager, Thomas Pop, along with HCRC Assistant and Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon, implemented the health assessment with the support of Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett.

Prior to our Health Assessment at the HCRC, the team joined up with Day Ligon and Denise Thompson in Central Belize to collect samples from a group of wild individuals to provide a reference and for comparison. All samples were collected under a permit provided by the Belize Fisheries department. Samples will be exported from Belize to the USA, and will be analyzed in a lab in the Wildlife Conservation Society Molecular Laboratory at the Bronx Zoo in New York.   

Acknowledgements

Thanks to our project partners who made these important events possible.

  • Turtle Survival Alliance
  • Turtle Conservation Fund
  • Global Wildlife Conservation
  • Wildlife Conservation Society
  • Jacksonville Zoo
  • Day Ligon and Denise Thompson

Dry Season at the Turtle Ponds by Jonathan Dubon

HCRC Manager, Tom Pop and Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon hold eggs they collected from the Hicatee ponds.

As the dry season rapidly approaches, we at the HCRC have a lot of work on our hands to keep our program running at its best. We have several mini-projects currently being conducted, such as improving the husbandry, daily maintenance of the site, taking care of about 400 critically endangered Hicatee turtles, and managing 100+ eggs (so far this year)!  We also spend our time brainstorming ways to improve water quality to help our turtles live healthy and happy. One of the ideas we are implementing is improving solar energy to pump more freshwater into the ponds by building a solar tower. We have dug and constructed the foundation for the tower, and in the coming weeks, we plan to finish constructing the braces and the tower itself.  


Nesting Season

A clutch of eggs collected during the 2020-2021 nesting season.

The nesting season began in early November 2020, and we have since collected 12 clutches of eggs or 108 total eggs. We recently discovered the 13th clutch; however, we will not collect it yet and are conducting a natural hatchment experiment on it first. We are unsure how many eggs are in this clutch, but I estimate anywhere between 7-11. Tom Pop, HCRC Manager, and I have also found three old clutches of eggs from last season which may not have been fertile. Adding up every clutch, our grand total is nearly 1,000 Hicatee eggs laid at our breeding facility!

Wildlife at the Turtle Ponds

Working at the HCRC in the middle of the jungle has its many benefits. Not only do we get to see cute and adorable Hicatee turtles every day (yes, we all think they are adorable), we also see other exciting wildlife.  Most common are green iguanas, pond sliders, the great curassow, crested guan, cat-eyed snakes, and speckled racers. Tom and I were recently pruning the fig trees around the turtle ponds when we heard some familiar birds in the trees not too far from us. We listened as we continued our work, and the calls were getting louder and louder. As we looked up, we saw a huge flock of beautiful and magnificent Scarlet macaws that had flown directly above us. We immediately looked up and started counting at least 20 macaws perched above the turtle ponds, so close we could see them clearly, even without binoculars. If you thought it couldn’t get better, it does! A few months ago, I witnessed my first wild Harpy eagle perched on a tree in the cacao farm just a few meters from the HCRC.  An amazing lifer, right!? 


It will be a full year since I started my fellowship position at BFREE this June. I’ve enjoyed witnessing all of the seasonal changes, the wildlife, and the opportunity to learn more about the Hicatee turtle. 

Educational materials shared with young Belizeans across the country!

By Ms. Ornella Cadle, Hicatee Awareness Month Committee Coordinator

Proud Hicatee Heroes show off the coloring sheet and board game included in this year’s educational materials. 

Each October, BFREE ambassadors and partners visit schools to present on Hicatee Awareness Month. Due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, outreach looked a bit different this year. While traveling to various schools for outreach wasn’t a safe option, we wanted to ensure the incredible resources still reached students’ hands across the country. BFREE emailed electronic resources directly to over 400 principals and teachers in Belize. The following schools in the Cayo, Stann Creek, and Toledo Districts received resource packets reaching nearly 500 students in their classrooms. 

  • Church of Christ Primary School, Independence Village, Stann Creek District
  • Moriah Learning Center, Independence Village, Stann Creek District
  • Shiloh Seventh-Day Adventist School, Independence Village, Stann Creek District
  • Golden Stream Government School, Golden Stream Village, Toledo District
  • Belize Rural Primary School, Rancho Dolores Village, Cayo District

A dedicated committee of volunteers and BFREE staff members created this year’s resource materials. The committee met for several months to build a packet of creative, engaging, and informative educational resources.

A highlight of the materials included; 

  • Coloring sheet of the Hicatee Hero mascot
  • “Hicatee and Ladder Migration Game,” displaying different predators for the hicatee that you must pass by answering true and false questions correctly.
  • “Mr. Hicatee” sing-along video featuring a conversation between Mr. Hicatee and a man named Damien who wants to learn more about the problems that Mr. Hicatee encounters in his daily life and how he can help.

Various news sources including, Breaking Belize News, The Reporter Newspaper, Cayo Scoop, and Heritage Education Network Belize, have featured Hicatee Awareness Month materials throughout the month. Hicatee Awareness Month Planning Committee Coordinator Nelly Cadle says, “I am very proud to be the Committee Coordinator and work with such a talented group of people. I truly believe that our hard work has paid off and that we could reach a lot of young students. However, our job is not done, we still have more work to do to save the Hicatee, and I look forward to continuing our efforts to conserve this national treasure of Belize!” 

We would like to say a special thank you to our friends – the Hicatee Heroes at Santa Fe College’s Teaching Zoo in Gainesville, Florida. Their Quarters for Conservation project helped fund the production of all materials for this year’s Hicatee Awareness Month.

If you have any questions, please send an email to education@bfreebz.org or call 671-1299. Visit www.bfreebz.org/2020-hicatee-resources/ to view all educational resources and additional information on hicatee conservation.

I’m a Hicatee Hero! Are You? This fun video features young Hicatee Heroes from across all six districts in Belize making the Hicatee Promise. Produced by, Monique Vernon and edited by, Simon Deniard. Hicatee Graphic by Belizario Gian Carballo.

Take Action, be a Hicatee Hero!

How You Can Help the Hicatee

The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at the BFREE Field Station and Privately Protected Area invites your support and action this Hicatee Awareness Month and year-round. Some ways to help include:


Be a Hicatee Hero; wear the cape and make the Hicatee Promise! Get creative, a blanket, towel, or sheet make the perfect cape! Send us your photo to be featured on social media as a #HicateeHero

Share what you believe makes the Hicatee turtle a National Treasure of Belize by sending your writing to BFREE at education@bfreebz.org or in the mail to PO Box 129 Punta Gorda Belize, Central America.

Donate to Hicatee conservation; money raised contributes to captive husbandry efforts and field research.

Visit the BFREE website to view all available resources and share your favorite Hica-tivity with your friends and family!

Join Team Hicatee for a one to two-week husbandry volunteer program.

Follow BFREE on social media for more opportunities to take part in Hicatee Awareness Month!


Introducing Jonathan Dubon, BFREE Science & Education Fellow

Jonathan Dubon, BFREE Science & Education Fellow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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