Fully Booked! 2024 BFREE TURTLE SURVEY

LONG TERM TURTLE SURVEY IN THE JUNGLE

Thanks for the incredible interest in our 2024 survey. We are no longer accepting deposits for this program.

You can be added to the wait-list by emailing bnelson@bfreebz.org

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

Participants will be supporting researchers in the fourth annual survey of a 10-year long-term monitoring project to provide basic demographic and population information. Turtles will be captured using various methods, including hand capture and baited traps, and will be given unique identification marks and injected with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags for future identification. You’ll be joined by herpetologists and experts in the field from both the US and Belize. From 2021-2023 the BFREE and TSA-NAFTRG team marked, measured and safely released 836 turtles. Turtles found included White-lipped Mud Turtle, Tabasco Mud Turtle, Scorpion Mud turtle,Narrow-bridged Musk Turtle, Mexican Giant Musk Turtle, Central American Snapping Turtle, Furrowed Wood Turtle, and the Meso-American Slider. These species represent eight of Belize’s nine known freshwater turtles.

We look forward to you joining us in Belize for the July 2024 BFREE and TSA-NAFTRG Turtle Survey in the jungle!


DATES

July 8th-18th, 2024 – OPEN

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

REQUIREMENTS

  • Able to hike between 5 and 10 miles a day in 90-degree weather with 100% humidity.
  • Able to lift and carry 40 lbs. for periods of time.
  • Willingness to get dirty and to put long days in.

CONTACT

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

emunscher@turtlesurvival.org

ITINERARY

  • Day One: Arrive at BZE by 1:30 PM, fly to INB at 3:30 PM (exact flight time to be updated in 2024). Transportation provided from INB to the BFREE Entrance road. Hike in to field station. Settle into rooms and unpack before dinner.
  • Day Two: Tour the BFREE Facility and familiarize yourself with the various trails and facilities. Free time to relax and swim in the crystal-clear water of the Bladen River or explore one of BFREE’s many conservation initiatives, including the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a captive breeding facility for the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, locally known in Belize as the Hicatee.
  • Day Three – Nine: Turtle surveys throughout BFREE’s 1,153-acre private reserve. Turtle surveys will primarily take place on the ground. There will be one or two days of river surveys but most data is collected on land.
  • Day Ten – Breakfast. Hike out from field station, transportation to Hokey Pokey water taxi. Stay at Sea Spray in Placencia. Dinner on your own.
  • Day Eleven: Transportation to INB for a domestic flight back to BZE.

COSTS

The cost is $1,750 per participant.

Cost Includes:

  • Double occupancy in BFREE’s newest accommodation, the Hammock, which features an open-air veranda connecting six private rooms. Linens, pillows, and blankets provided.
  • Three chef-prepared meals per day.
  • Guided night hikes and tours of BFREE’s conservation programs
  • Transportation from Savannah Airport (INB) to the BFREE entrance road.
  • Ground and water taxi transportation to Sea Spray hotel in Placencia with one night stay included.
  • Fees paid to this program not only support your participation in critical turtle research for Belize but also have a direct impact on the country’s next generation of conservation leaders. Funding from this TSA-NAFTRG-BFREE research program helps to support Belizean participation in scientific research at BFREE.

REGISTER

Space is limited for this incredible opportunity; make your deposit today to secure your spot. Deposits are due by April 1, 2024. The final payment is due by June 7th, 2024. To register for this program, read the Booking Terms and Conditions on the next page.



BOOKING TERMS AND CONDITIONS

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

Covered Costs.

Participation in the 2024 Turtle Survey at BFREE is $1,750 per person. These covered costs per person include accommodations, meals (while at BFREE), guided tours of BFREE and transportation to Placencia. Program Fees Do Not include the following: international airfare to BZE, roundtrip domestic airfare with Maya Island Air to Savannah (INB), meals in Placencia, soft drinks and beers, or travel insurance, gratuities/souvenirs – at your discretion.

Deposit and Final Payment.

A $500 USD Non-Refundable initial deposit will secure your spot on the trip, or you may choose to pay in full. The remaining balance is due 30-days before the retreat start date. Failure to make payment by the applicable due date may forfeit your booking on the trip and be treated as a cancellation. If a booking is made less than 30-days before the trip start date, the full amount must be paid at the time of booking.

Payment Schedule.

The $500 deposit is due for all participants by April 1, 2024. Final payment for Participants is due by June 7, 2024. Payments should be made at www.givebutter.com/turtle2024

Cancellations.

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

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

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

Travel to BFREE.

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

COVID-19 Policy.

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

Info Session.

Turtle Survival Alliance and Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education will host an informational virtual meeting in 2024 for all
confirmed Participants prior to survey. Meeting Date: TBA

Celebrating Seven Years of Hicatee Awareness Month

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we are waiting for. We are the change we seek.” Barack Obama

Hicatee Awareness Month was born out of a need – as are many things. The Hicatee turtle was on the brink of extinction. Belize was identified as the stronghold for the species throughout its small range. Yet, how do you get an entire country to care about saving one species of turtle? And even more challenging – a turtle that is entirely aquatic and seldom seen, so is most recognized as a delightful and celebratory meal?

With baby steps as well as trial and error. 

In 2015, I designed a t-shirt with the Mountain Printing Company in the states. The shirt displayed a photo of the first Hicatee hatchling to the HCRC (Freckles) with #SaveTheHicatee written underneath. The turtle was perfectly adorable and a hit with kids. I was excited that this was the first significant material I had created for the purpose of conservation. 

Soon after the shirts were delivered to Belize, Jacob Marlin wore his on the Hokey Pokey to travel from Mango Creek to Placencia. He ran into an old friend from the village, who said to him, “Your shirt is making me hungry!” 

Jacob later told me the story and it stuck with me. Not as a failure but as a lesson and an opportunity. We had to do more and we had to think differently.

Richard and Carol Foster were finishing a documentary film that described the plight of the Hicatee in Belize. BFREE and Turtle Survival Alliance needed to share it with audiences in Belize who could care about the species and do something about it. 

As a result, Hicatee Awareness Month was born in October 2017 as a national campaign to save the species. “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee” documentary was the centerpiece and schools and NGO partners throughout Belize partnered in ensuring that film viewings and events happened throughout the month. We featured a different #HicateeHero every day in October and shared knowledge about how cool it is to be a teacher or researcher or student or biologist and told stories about everyday heroes. We reached hundreds of students and community members in person throughout Belize and thousands online.

When October 31st rolled around in 2017, I was proud and relieved to have made it through. I also thought that would be the end of Hicatee Awareness Month, because I had only envisioned it as a one-time event. However, I started to get emails and requests about what next year’s celebration would look like. And so, it continued….


In 2018, we hosted a national poster contest and had wonderful entries from all over the country. We were thrilled when the Standard IV class at Hummingbird Elementary in Belize City formed their own Hicatee Committee and used materials we sent to teach kids throughout their entire school.

In 2019, we produced a calendar with the winning poster entries from 2018. Those calendars were included as one of the new materials in the 100 packets that were distributed that year.


Then, there was the 2020 pandemic. And the small BFREE team was running short on new ideas for the month, so we decided to form a committee and invite members from other districts in Belize to contribute a fresh perspective to the annual celebration. The results were beyond our expectations! Soon, the team created a new mascot, Mr. Hicatee, as well as activities including a new sing-a-long song and Hicatee Hero video. Packets were delivered by committee members to schools in the districts where they lived. This was incredibly important that year because teachers were required to send materials home with students.


In 2021, new materials included a poster and bumper sticker to target older audiences. These materials were distributed throughout Belize on buses and cars, in grocery stores and other locations.


In 2022, Committee membership expanded and so did our reach. This year, we continued to focus on adult audiences, creating tote bags and even a billboard asking Belizeans to Follow the laws of Belize to protect all wildlife including the Hicatee. We shifted our language to talk about the importance of protecting the watersheds that Hicatee inhabit.

This year, we continue our quest to see the Hicatee become the National Reptile and to ultimately save a species from extinction. I couldn’t be more excited and proud of what we (a growing community of people who care about Belize’s wildlife and wildlands) have accomplished. Our next steps will be to put a research team together who will go into the field to learn about Hicatee in the wild and to collaborate with the communities who share the waters with these special turtles.

The Hicatee is disappearing, but together we can save it. 


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 Hicatee-themed items including: 500 t-shirts, 5,000 stickers, 200 posters, 160 “Herbert the Hicatee” books, 100 tote bags, and 100 “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee” DVD’s.
  4. Hicatee Hero volunteers hosted over 50 public events and classroom visits.
  5. More than 25 features on radio, TV, and in printed magazines and newspapers.
  6. Created “Mr. Hicatee,” a catchy sing-along video and song.
  7. Featured two roadside billboards in strategic locations in Belize.
  8. Over – local and international visitors to BFREE have taken the Hicatee pledge and signed the Save the Hicatee banner!

Thanks to 2023 Committee Members: Ornella Cadle (2023 Committee Chair), Colleen Joseph, Jessie Young, Claudia Matzdorf, Barney Hall, Abigail Parham-Garbutt, Jonathan Dubon, Ingrid Rodriguez, Jaren Serano, and Heather Barrett.

Thanks to past Committee members: Robynn Philips (2022 Committee Chair), Tyler Sanville, Marcia Itza, Belizario Gian Carballo, Monique Vernon, Celina Gongora, Gianni Martinez, Ed Boles, and Elvera Xi.

We are also grateful to our local and international partners who have supported Hicatee Awareness Month over the years: Turtle Survival Alliance, Independence Junior College, University of Belize, the Belize Zoo, Crocodile Research Coalition, Sacred Heart Junior College, Hummingbird Elementary, Zoo Miami, South Carolina Aquarium, Disney Conservation Fund, and Zoo New England.  

Finding Hope Amidst the Loss

A memory that is deeply lodged inside my brain – me, at the age of ten, navigating a trail behind my house winding through the lush broadleaf forests to the purpose of my being, the Belize River. A river that is deep and wide, created by two rivers colliding into one another. My heart pounds like a piston on a super truck climbing up a hill as I reach the cliff’s edge and peer over because I’m able to see schools of fish that are not scared off by my human presence. This was a time when I felt most connected to nature because the animals I witnessed didn’t seem traumatised by their contact with people. 

As a child, I was constantly fishing. I was also always observant – and when boats filled with fishermen were coming near – I quickly hid. I clearly remember one group of fishermen in a fancy John boat. They had an odd way of fishing by using ropes. Two men would shake the ropes as if they’ve hooked a giant fish and needed help from the others who would then jump in the water. When those who jumped in returned to the boat, all I would hear was a loud “bang” as if a rock fell into the hull. When I looked more closely, I could see a large turtle. I winced as the boat full of men celebrated in triumph.

I was a witness to the poaching that has led to the decline and critically endangered status of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) or Hicatee as we call it in Belize. It was very difficult for me to understand what was happening at that age. Now, I see things a bit more clearly.

Another memory that is crystal clear to me, is sitting on a cliff watching a dark brown, huge shell surfacing. I would hear a sharp sound as it released air for a couple of seconds and then torpedoed back down. The Hicatee is a unique species with a complicated physiology. I could never understand why I didn’t see them on land and always thought they were a mysterious animal. 

Animals in the wild don’t behave in the same way as they did when I was ten.  In the past I could watch fish closely as I’ve trained my eyes from a young age to spot an Iguana through dense trees or a toucan up on a high tree, but now as soon as a fish sees a glimpse of you it’s racing a bullet to hide.  Could it be because of these aghast methods of fishing? From a cliff, on a clear day, if I see a Hicatee, I must be very still when it comes up to breathe, because any sign of movement causes it to disappear. 

The trail that I once walked as a kid is no longer in existence. Now, I walk through an anthropogenic field of corn with no trees present until I reach the riverbank, which barely has twenty feet of riparian forest. What I see now are large pipes releasing effluents in the rivers, banks degrading, garbage accumulating, herons and cormorants caught in nets and fishing line, water colour not as vibrant green, and animals missing on the trails I once enjoyed. Observing all these losses breaks my heart. I wonder, when will there be sustainable efforts to restore these ecosystems and the animals that depend on them? 

Working with the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE) has allowed me to develop a mindset aimed towards conserving Belize for future generations. My work at BFREE is focused on the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center which was created in conjunction with Turtle Survival Alliance as a response to catastrophic declines of Hicatee populations due to elevated levels of harvesting for human consumption. 

The facility strives to accumulate information on the species in captivity. We facilitate and promote research on the biology and ecology of Hicatee focusing on areas like breeding and nesting behaviours, temperature sex determination, dietary needs, growth rates, as well as pathogens and parasites. Through breeding efforts, we have been able to hatch and raise over 1,000 turtles and, to date, we have released over 500 of these captive-bred animals into the wild. We offer volunteer opportunities and training associated with our bi-annual Health assessments. We also host meetings and symposia to help further collective knowledge on the species.

On a national level BFREE has established the largest outreach campaign on the species – Hicatee Awareness Month. Through this campaign, we engage young minds, teachers, and the general public via events, media, and school programs to create awareness and enhance community involvement. 

We are also gearing up and planning for the launch of our field research team. Our initial research team members will consist of HCRC Manager – Thomas Pop, Dermatemys Program Coordinator – Jaren Serano and myself. There will also be opportunities for others to collaborate and assist in the field work once we get started. Together, we will gather the data needed to better understand the species and its current distribution in the wild. My team’s ultimate goal and hope is for the Hicatee to become sustainable once again in its native habitat. As for me, I won’t stop dreaming of the day when I return to the cliff of my youth and see my beautiful Belize as it once was and can be again – rich and lush in all its natural glory.    

The Importance of Involving Local Communities in Conservation

I vividly recall my first time on the Belize River, navigating a canoe while assisting in population surveys for a Hicatee assessment. Despite my Belizean upbringing, my familiarity was primarily inland, leaving the fishing communities’ way of life somewhat foreign to me. Engaging in river-based research marked my initial exposure to the intricate relationship between these communities and the waterway.

The river serves not only as a food source but also as a gathering place for families, where they bond through storytelling and laughter on a relaxing Sunday afternoon. This is a place where elders pass on swimming and life lessons to their grandchildren, while youngsters test their aquatic stamina through diving games. Apart from fishing, the river holds multiple significant meanings to the communities who consider it their backyard.

“Save the Hicatee” banners have been created and signed by community members (young and old) across Belize who share the concern for this critically endangered species and who want to take action.

By observing fishing communities seamlessly blend into their environment, I started to see that, even though we all live in the same country, different communities have their own special ways of connecting with the environment we all share. This recognition as well as my recent experience studying abroad has helped me to realize that integrating local knowledge in the work that we do allows for the development of conservation strategies that are culturally appropriate and tailored to the specific needs of the area.

In Belize, Hicatee turtles have historically been harvested as a traditional and celebratory food source, resulting in a significant decline in their population. The consumption of Hicatee meat holds deep -roots within the Belizean population. I believe it is our responsibility as conservationists with a scientific perspective to consider how we can address this cultural tradition while also preserving the integrity of the species. Local perspectives can help us identify potential conflicts between Hicatee conservation efforts and local needs.

Incorporating these communities in our work can also improve the effectiveness of our research. For example, by communicating with local fishers we can identify areas where Hicatee turtles are in abundance but are being heavily harvested; this information can help us make informed decisions about areas to protect. Hiring dedicated locals as riverkeepers of these protected areas also offers the opportunity to create sustainable livelihoods within target communities. By involving communities in conservation efforts, we hope to foster a sense of ownership and responsibility. When people are valued and engaged, they are more likely to actively participate in protecting their environment as well as the biodiversity that inhabits it. 

To effectively contribute to the preservation of the Hicatee turtles, it’s crucial to involve community members of all ages, backgrounds and professions in our conservation and research endeavors. Some examples include the involvement of community leaders, local fisherfolks who know every twist and turn of the rivers, the popular food vendors down the street who help to keep the community fed, farmers who provide us with local produce and the dedicated educators who are shaping young minds. In closing, Biodiversity in ecosystems contributes to resilience and adaptability. Similarly, diversity in conservation teams enhances adaptability to changing circumstances and challenges.

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 Journey of Nutrition at the HCRC

By Barney Hall, Wildlife Fellow

Dermatemys mawii (Hicatee) hatchlings at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center  (HCRC) are frequently caught during a tour in order to give visitors a hands-on experience and a unique opportunity to hold such a rare turtle. With that being said, each time Tom catches a turtle he quickly analyzes the health of the hatchlings and is pleased when he confirms that the shells are very hard compared to the past hatchlings. You might be curious to know what has changed.

Background

Prior to our work at the HCRC, the hicatee has never been successfully held captive for breeding for any length of time. Past research using dissection of the turtle’s intestinal tract has shown different types of plant vegetation but no indication of carnivorous activity and helps us better understand what they feed on. Because of this, a cycle is done at the facility where Tom and Barney collect fig leaves, cecropia leaves, paspalum grass and occasionally basket tie-tie  to try and meet the turtle’s nutritional requirements. However, in the wild there are way more varieties and minerals the turtle could feed on to help them gain calcium carbonate to strengthen their shells. For this very reason research was needed to locate a source to find that missing nutritional component. 

Some visitors to the HCRC during a Hicatee Health Assessment recommended we supplement the turtle’s diet with a prepared and specific pre-made turtle food. So, we asked some visitors to bring some Mazuri diet down when they came and we tried it with our hatchlings. When we saw some positive changes, we asked Rick Hudson for help getting more bags to Belize. He jumped in and asked Mark Dennison of Mazuri Turtle Diet for a donation of food to the Belize program. Mazuri turtle diet is a nutritionally complete turtle food for all freshwater species and stages of life. Since it’s a complete diet, all necessary components of a reptile’s nutritional needs are accounted for in its formulation. In fact, all Mazuri diets are formulated by in-house Ph.D Exotic Animal Nutritionists and manufactured to exacting standards to ensure the best quality and complete, constant nutrition for captive held reptiles (Mazuri nutrition 2021). 

The food is not available in Belize and we don’t currently have the conditions for long-term storage of large amounts of turtle food (although, thanks to our partner, Zoo New England, we have plans in the works to remedy that). In the meantime, we deal with an elaborate process of ordering bags, getting them imported into Belize and then transported to BFREE.  

A New Supply for 2023

This January, Wildlife Fellow Barney Hall and HCRC Manager Tom Pop were able to get in contact with Mr. Mark Dennison again. This was due to Tom’s encounter with Mr. Mark at the 20th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Freshwater Turtlesn Tucson, Arizona. 

Tom describes his encounter as follows, “We met briefly at the turtle conference last year in Tucson, Arizona. Mark told me he had shipped Mazuri food pellets to Mr. Rick Hudson which were then shipped to Belize. I explained how the pellets arrived to us in Belize and how beneficial they have been to the young hatchlings’ health at the facility. We noticed that our hatchlings were not forming hard shells, meaning that their diet requirements were not being met, until we introduced the Mazuri pellets”.  Mr. Mark was very delighted by our efforts and great remarks about the food quality he provides, so immediately offered to donate six more bags of pellets to the HCRC!

We have noticed clear improvements in our turtles’ health at the HCRC, especially our young hatchlings, since beginning to provide Mazuri pellets. We supplement their regular feedings with Mazuri diet and take observations each month to check the progress on shell development. Over time, results have shown that all hatchlings now have very hard shells and seem to have overcome the lack of calcium that was previously impacting their health. The turtles love the pellets and devour the food so very fast that we average one sack of pellets per month. Another great benefit of the pellets is that they float which creates a natural feeding behavior to the young turtles when introduced days after they have hatched.  In total, we have successfully released 416 captive-bred healthy turtles back into the wild to areas where they were once abundant to try and augment populations.

A Special Thanks

We very much look forward to receiving the turtle diet in the coming weeks. On behalf of BFREE and the HCRC, we would like to thank Mr. Mark and the team of Mazuri.  We hope to build this connection stronger for future collaborations to keep providing the best care and nutrition to the critically-endangered Hicatee turtle. 

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.

BFREE TURTLE SURVEY

LONG TERM TURTLE SURVEY IN THE JUNGLE

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

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

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


DATES

June 30 – July 10, 2023 – OPEN

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

REQUIREMENTS

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

CONTACT

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

emunscher@turtlesurvival.org

ITINERARY

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

COSTS

The costs are $1,600 per participant.

Cost Includes:

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

REGISTER

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



BOOKING TERMS AND CONDITIONS

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

Covered Costs.

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

Deposit and Final Payment.

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

Payment Schedule.

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

Cancellations.

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

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

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

Travel to BFREE.

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

COVID-19 Policy.

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

Info Session.

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

Re-wilding Hicatee into Belize’s rivers

BFREE, with the help of our dedicated partners, implemented three (3) separate Hicatee turtle release events for 2022. The first release event was conducted on the 1st of April 2022 when fifty-five (55) juveniles and hatchlings were released into a river in north central Belize. The release was done by BFREE’s Tom Pop and Jonathan Dubon with the support of community members.

The second release event was conducted on the 2nd of June 2022 when forty five (45) turtles were released into another river system also in north central Belize. The release was conducted by Belize Turtle Ecology Lab (BTEL) and students from Dr. Day Ligon’s Turtle Ecology Lab at Missouri State University, USA.

The third release event was conducted on the 17th of June 2022 and was the biggest release to date. A total of one hundred and twenty-four (124) juveniles were released into the wild in central Belize. BFREE staff, Dr. Ed Boles, Tom Pop, Jonathan Dubon and Barney Hall, were responsible for transporting and releasing all of the turtles. The location was chosen based on two factors. The first factor was that many of the adults that parented the juveniles were from this watershed, and previous data collected confirmed that this population has been heavily depleted. The second factor is related to research. This specific location allows for BFREE and its partner institutions to track and conduct long-term monitoring, and the habitat is healthy and provides the natural requirements needed for the population to rebound over time.

Jacob Marlin, BFREE’ Executive Director, states, “The reintroductions or rewilding of captive bred Hicatee from the HCRC at BFREE is a critical part of a much broader effort to prevent the extinction of this critically endangered species of turtle. By monitoring the survivorship and overall health of released turtles, and comparing the results to wild turtles of similar age and size, we can better understand the efficacy of and probability that our program can help re-establish and augment populations that have been severely depleted where they once were abundant.”

Over the last three years, with the support of our partners, BFREE has successfully released 415 captive born and raised Hicatee turtles in five different water bodies in central Belize. These turtles have been reintroduced into two watersheds where their populations have been severely depleted. Our reintroduction programs include both short and long-term monitoring, which will help us determine the success of this project. Several of the releases included the participation of community members to further expand our outreach efforts. 

As always, a special thanks to our partner, Turtle Survival Alliance, for their consistent and faithful support of Hicatee conservation in Belize.