New Cacao Operations Manager

Congratulations to Mr. Elmer Tzalam. He has recently taken on the new role of Cacao Operations Manager for Crioco Cacao, LLC. This is well-deserved promotion for Elmer. He has been a faithful employee to BFREE for over ten years.

Elmer Tzalam is Crioco Cacao LLC’s Cacao Operations Manager

Elmer began working with BFREE in June 2011 as the project’s first cacao farm worker. Prior to BFREE, Elmer received cacao training internationally with the organization CATIE. He used the knowledge gained in training to support the growth of the cacao trees at BFREE. For years, he nurtured the cacao and coffee trees in that original farm plot – now designated Block 1. When it was necessary to begin collecting data on the wild Criollo trees found throughout the property, Elmer took responsibility. He would hike deep into the forest, sometimes alone, sometimes with other BFREE staff or volunteers.

He is multi-talented and has many years of work experience prior to joining the BFREE team in 2011. Because of his well-rounded work history, Elmer has filled many roles at the field station. From supporting student groups, to maintaining the facilities, to delivering supplies, to training new cacao staff – he has done a little bit of everything and he understands how this field station works.

“Elmer has been instrumental in the development of BFREE’ cacao program since its inception,” stated Jacob Marlin, Crioco Cacao, CEO. “His extensive experience in the many cacao operations such as the nursery, the wild trees, the farm and with post-harvest processing make him invaluable to our agroforestry program.”

Documentarians visit BFREE

Professional photographers, videographers, and documentarians Jorge Silva Rivera and Carlos Miguel Herrera traveled from Chiapas, Mexico, to BFREE for 10-days in February 2022. Working with Zamia Media, the pair set out to document the people, facilities, wildlife, and natural beauty of BFREE. Zamia Media will then use the images and videos captured during their time to create updated visuals for BFREE to use on our website and in other marketing materials.

The duo has vast experience documenting remote, hard-to-reach places throughout southern Mexico and has worked to discover and learn more about some of the most ancient and biodiverse locations in the world.

During their time at BFREE, they spent several days interviewing all of the staff and many of the volunteers and other visitors who overlapped with their visit. They used multiple drones to capture BFREE’s privately protected area and spent hours photographing the flora and fauna throughout the property. It was an honor to host Jorge and Carlos at BFREE and such an incredible experience to have them alongside our team for nearly two weeks.

We understand the importance of documenting our work and sharing the incredible place that is BFREE. However, it can be difficult to do so when all of the other work is so demanding. We are so grateful to have had these two professionals join us so that we can continue #BringingBFREEToYou!

From Seeds to Trees

Flowers that have dropped from a Jobillo tree near Heather’s home at BFREE.

A couple of years ago, the Jobillo tree next to the house where I live at BFREE, began dropping flowers. The dry season was in full force, so it must have been around May when I noticed the first bunch of delicate, perfect, pale, white blooms. I collected a few out of curiosity and asked Jacob what they were. I learned that the flowers, which detached from the tree in clumps before falling/ floating to the ground, were the tree’s method of seed dispersal and that this only happened every few years. I was fascinated by the perfect central seed that the flowers protected and transported to the earth. Jobillo (sometimes called Tigerwood) is an unusual species of tropical hardwood that has a dark orangish-red cast to the heartwood and is streaked with dark brown to black “tiger stripes.” Jobillo is native to Central and South America and is in the genus of flowering plants in the cashew family called Astronium.


That year, Jobillo flowers soon covered the ground near the house and I began collecting them in my trusty yellow bucket. I spent hours over many days separating seeds from flowers. In the end, I had thousands of seeds and was enthusiastic to plant and share these rare treasures. I placed several hundred seeds in bags in the BFREE plant nursery and still I had thousands remaining, so I divided them into several bags and gave them to our closest neighbors at the Gomez Sawmill and to anyone else who expressed interest.


My enthusiasm was perhaps appreciated but not necessarily shared. Not because Jobillo isn’t beautiful and valuable – it is both of those things – but because it has several innate challenges. Its irregular grain and alternating layers of hard and soft wood make Jobillo difficult to work with. Also, it is exceptionally slow growing. Trees on the property that are known to be nearly 20 years old are tall but only 10-12 inches in diameter. Still, a few dozen of my trees were planted within the cacao agroforestry project in order to add some variety and some long-term shade. The rest were left to grow in the nursery and cared for along with the other nursery plants. To our surprise, last month when Jacob received a phone call: a Belizean woman from Cayo heard we have a nursery and might have some unusual hardwoods for sale. She was particularly interested in Jobillo.


After several phone calls, arrangements were made for her to purchase 130 of our Jobillo saplings. I was thrilled! The truck was loaded with plants plus a few extra for good measure and we drove out to meet Lavinia and her daughter.


Lavinia owns a nursery and was gathering the trees for a client doing a reforestation project in northern Belize near the Mexican border. She surveyed the condition of the trees and we asked if they met with her approval, she slowly nodded. “The leaves are so pretty I could put them in a salad.” She and her daughter laughed and she added, “We are plant-based, so everything green looks like our next meal.” During our brief interaction, Lavinia told us that she wants her nursery to encourage people to plant more trees and food plants. During the pandemic, she has been surprised that more Belizeans didn’t take the opportunity to start producing their own food in home gardens. She has also noticed that there are many areas throughout Belize that were damaged by fire but have never been replanted. Her motto for her nursery is “Planting up Belize.”

Lavinia’s interest in the plants and trees produced at BFREE and her concern about the loss of green areas throughout the country, reminded me of the critical and continued role BFREE’s forests can play in producing seeds and saplings for the future, not just of this property, or of the Toledo District, but for Belize in its entirety.

Image One: Thousands of the seeds were collected from the one flowering Jobillo tree dropping flowers near Heather’s house at BFREE. Image Two: Two years after planting the collected seeds, saplings were ready for delivery to Lavinia’s nursery and loaded into the back of the truck. Image Three: Heather Barrett and Jacob Marlin pose with the saplings before delivering them to their new home.

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 Drs. James Rotenberg and Vibeke Olson on your retirement!

Vibeke Olson and Jamie Rotenberg

Congratulations to long-time BFREE supporters, field course leaders, researchers, and adventurers, Drs. Jamie Rotenberg and Vibeke Olson on their recent retirement from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Extraordinary husband and wife team, Jamie and Vibeke, have been visiting BFREE for nearly two decades as professors bringing field courses, as researchers, with their graduate students, and as supporters. 

Their impact on BFREE has been significant. BFREE is a better place because of Jamie and Vibeke. So from your BFREE family, congratulations! We look forward to this next chapter in your lives and can’t wait to share in a few of your upcoming adventures.


Messages from your BFREE Friends and Family:

Judy Dourson and Jamie on a UNCW-BFREE Field Course in 2007. Photo Credit: Lisa Ramsden

From Judy and Dan Dourson, BFREE Staff Members 2006 – 2013:

We first met Jamie (Dr. Rotenberg to most) in December of 2006 in our first few months as field station managers of BFREE.  He arrived along with close friend and cave diver, Sam Meachum, to lead the first of many expeditions into the Bladen Nature Reserve to establish survey protocols for what would be an extensive, long-term study of neotropical migratory birds and the signature species, the Harpy Eagle.  Jamie’s tenacity and determination were on full display when he limped into BFREE after one particularly grueling expedition, hiking over 8 hours through trail-less, brutal terrain to reach BFREE only to discover a very painful broken collarbone.  Dr. Rotenberg’s tireless commitment to the Avian Monitoring and Harpy Eagle study produced numerous grants to fund the study.

By far our most elaborate scientific collaboration with Jamie was in 2016 when Dan became a co-investigator for a National Geographic Waitt Foundation Grant that focused on the potential relationship between land snails (Dan’s research focus) and Harpy Eagles.  With over 30 participants, the expedition was a technological feat that entailed creating a mobile lab to process snails, portable generators hauled deep into the jungle to provide power for advanced drone technology and elite cavers from Poland who dropped into a 300-foot sinkhole during the expedition.

Jamie hiking through the Bladen River during the 2016 National Geographic Waitt expedition. Photo credit: Kasia Biernacka

While Dan’s interactions with Jamie would revolve around their shared passion for the biodiversity of this exceptional region of the world, my time spent with Dr. Rotenberg centered on the development and implementation of seven field courses.  In true fashion, Jamie always knew how to shake things up and challenged me to expand my own horizons as Director of Educational Programs at BFREE leading to new field course locations like Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary or Tikal in Guatemala. I met Jamie’s lovely and spunky life companion, Vibeke, while working with them to plan and execute an innovative course for biology and art/architecture majors focused on the art and architecture of Maya archaeological sites and structures and the biodiversity found around these anthropogenic structures.  Another creative collaboration with Dr. Rotenberg focused on Environmental Psychology with both environmental sciences and psychology majors. 
 
Our field course adventures were always informative, stimulating, sometimes challenging, and full of surprises but it was those challenges that strengthened the bonds of what is sure to be a lifelong friendship.  It is with great delight that Dan and I welcome them into the wonderful world of “retirement”.  We look forward to learning more about what new adventures await and how we can participate. To quote my comedian spouse, Dan, “After all, snails and birds rule, everything else drools!”


Jamie and Jacob Marlin proudly hold the 2012 Partners in Flight Award for Bird Conservation that was awarded to BFREE.

From Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director:

From the first time Jamie came to BFREE back almost two decades ago, he has played a key role in so many of our conservation programs. From leading our bird research and monitoring efforts, including the rediscovery of a wild breeding population of Harpy eagles, to training young Belizeans to be bird biologists. His passion for teaching brought hundreds of students from the USA to BFREE on study abroad programs for more than a decade. In 2014, BFREE was honored to have Jamie join the board of directors, where he currently serves as vice-president. Over the many years, Jamie and Vibeke have continued to support BFREE in countless ways, always believing in us and our mission. They are both true partners in conservation. Congratulations to this dynamic husband and wife team!


Jamie examines a bird for data collection during a research trip to Belize.

From Marlyn Cruz Sierra, BFREE Staff Member 2012 – 2014:

 Working along with people who share an incredible passion for what they do is one of those experiences that you will always cherish. For me, Dr. James is that person. He transmitted this passion and love of his work and projects when I participated as an avian technician at BFREE, so it never really felt like “work.” He was always very communicative and incredibly organized. He was unselfish with the wealth of knowledge he possessed, willing to give you an opportunity for growth, and cheering you on while you accepted new challenges.


Gato Pop center and Jamie top right along with the Harpy Avian Team in 2008 at BFREE.

From Liberato “Gato” Pop, BFREE Staff Member 2006 – 2015:

I would like to say that Dr. Jamie has been a great mentor for me. He has guided me through numerous trainings to become an expert avian researcher. He has always encouraged me to continue what I love and that is working with nature.

I want to thank Dr. Jamie and Dr. Vibeke for their support of our bird banding project for the past years at BFREE.


Jamie and Vibeke pose with students from UNCW during their BFREE Field Course.

From Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director:

I admire how well Jamie and Vibeke have participated in each other’s professional and personal interests over the years. Although they have focused their careers on different continents, they remain a strong team supporting one another by each being engaged in the pursuits of the other. Jamie picked Central America and the sciences for his research while Vibeke chose Europe and the arts for hers. Instead of allowing their differences to divide them, they used them as an opportunity to explore the world together. With that model in mind, I’d say the sky is the limit for their shared retirement. Congratulations, Jamie and Vibeke!


Jamie and Lisa reunited after a decade at a 2017 BFREE Fundraiser in DC

From Lisa Ramsden, UNCW Alum and BFREE Field Course Participant 2007:

Dr. Rotenberg fostered my deep love of tropical ecosystems and birds through his classes at UNCW. I am so thankful that I particpated in his Environmental Psychology course that took students to Belize and that I was able to visit BFREE. It was a truly eye-opening experience for me. I feel so lucky to have taken a variety of classes with him and to have gotten the wonderful experience to intern with him on his Painted Bunting project. Congratulations on your retirement, wishing you all the best!


James and Jamie in Belize

From James Abbott, UNCW Alum, BFREE Field Course Participant and Assistant Researcher:

Congratulations Dr. Rotenberg on your retirement. You have been an amazing mentor to me. I believe that even more than the knowledge, experience, and skills, you passed on to me; the biggest influence I carry with me everyday is your attitude toward life and teaching demeanor and style. Those have and continue to shape my career in environmental education. Not to mention my unofficial role as the painted bunting ambassador to all of southeast VA – our region’s newest breeding bird. I cannot thank you enough for everything you have done for me and I hope we can meet up again someday at BFREE and enjoy a field station harpy eagle together.


Restore Our Earth — Happy Earth Day!

The Bladen River at BFREE. Photo by Head Ranger, Sipriano Canti

Today marks what is now the most widely observed secular holiday across the globe, Earth Day! Celebrated April 22nd annually, organizations and individuals come together to demonstrate support for environmental protection. This year’s earthday.org theme is “Restore Our Earth.” The theme rejects the notion that mitigation or adaptation are the only ways to address climate change but that it is up to every one of us to Restore Our Earth. 

“Restore” is not a new theme for us at BFREE; in fact, it is a significant theme to all that we do. 

Restoring tropical rainforest. Our cacao-based agroforestry program was created as a strategy to conserve and restore tropical rainforests in Belize. 

Restoring watersheds. BFREE has partnered with the Monkey River Watershed Association working to conserve and restore the integrity of the entire Monkey River Watershed. 

Restoring habitats. Through extensive management and protection of the BFREE reserve, our rangers are restoring habitats to ensure BFREE remains a hotspot for biodiversity. 

Restoring wildlife. Our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center is restoring local populations through captive-breeding and release programs. 

Our success in restoring wildlife and wildlands is because of our relentless stewardship, innovative strategies, and your support. As we celebrate our 25th Earth Day at BFREE this year, we know that there is still plenty of work to be done – but together, we can Restore Our Earth. 

Happy Earth Day! 

BFREE’s Bounty of Birds

For the past three years, BFREE has had Harpy eagle visitors in late February. So that means we are spending a lot of time looking up! Scouring the tops of trees like Ceiba and Prickly Yellow where we’ve seen them previously perched in hopes that 2021 will be good to us. We’ve recorded 20 separate observations within the BFREE reserve since the first one in September 2016. The most recent was by Sipriano Canti last November.

To us, it is spectacular to witness this enormous and awe-inspiring raptor. We are reminded that having Harpies around means that BFREE and the Maya Mountains remain healthy and intact enough to support this top predator.

And the Harpy isn’t the only bird indicator that the BFREE reserve is an oasis for wildlife. Our Ranger team has diligently recorded Scarlet Macaw sightings on an almost daily basis since August 3, 2020.

We don’t want the rangers to have all of the fun though! So some of the staff have started to document birds using both ebird.org and printed observation sheets. As a 2021 challenge, Nelly Cadle and I began recording a list every day. Doing this helps us to become better birders while also documenting which birds inhabit BFREE. We often ask Tom Pop for help with IDs because he is excellent at identifying birds by song and calls. Lenardo Ash has also become interested in birding and has started recording sightings with us. Finally, we can always count on Sipriano Canti to snap pics and record bird observations around BFREE because he and his ranger team are constantly on the move and have the greatest opportunity to spot amazing birds and other wildlife.

Being at BFREE nurtures our love for this country’s incredible wildlife and inspires us to continue our role as stewards of this rare and spectacular place.

Below are photos BFREE staff took of birds at BFREE in 2020 and 2021.

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.

Summer Cooking Series with Nelly!

This summer, we are bringing BFREE to you with a summer cooking series hosted by BFREE Field Course Leader, Nelly Cadle. Each month, Nelly has selected a staple of Belizean cuisine and the most loved dishes by our guests at BFREE to share with all of you through a Facebook Live cooking class.

Follow @BFREEBELIZE on Facebook and tune in for the next upcoming cooking class on Saturday, 11 July at 10 AM Mountain Time (Belize) / Noon Eastern Time to make one of the most Belizean dishes of all, stew chicken!


Saturday, 23 May: Panades


Sunday, 14 June: Rice and Beans


Saturday, 11 July: Stew Chicken

VIDEO WILL BE ADDED AFTER 11 JULY!

Follow @BFREEBELIZE on Facebook and tune in for the upcoming cooking class on Saturday, 11 July at 10 AM Mountain Time (Belize) / Noon Eastern Time to join Nelly in making Stew Chicken.


Check out more cooking with BFREE videos on our YouTube Channel!


Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic Spotlight

Dr. Isabelle examines each 2019 hatched Hicatee before placing it in the bin to travel back to the HCRC.

Last week, BFREE Deputy Director, Heather Barrett, traveled to the Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC) in the Cayo District of Western Belize to retrieve twelve of the HCRC captive-born Hicatee turtles. They had been cared for at the BWRC by Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, DVM, and her team and the turtles were in good health overall. While they could have stayed for longer observation and data collection on this unique species, Corona changed it all. The recent shutdown of tourism, which provided a large portion of the non-profit clinics income as well as hands-on assistance from interns was combined with being an essential business that continued to offer services. Then came the spread of dry season fires throughout Belize and the annual baby season (which is high season for wildlife orphan intakes)… and “anybody healthy had to make space for more critical cases”. Just like the human hospitals had to do for COVID patients, Dr. Isabelle, therefore, requested BFREE to retrieve our turtles to make room for those animals with more serious health conditions. 

Injuries to wildlife during a fire may include burns, injuries from falling out of trees, or having things fall onto them while escaping, or maybe less severe stresses that can still prove fatal if not addressed – like smoke inhalation and dehydration. Some animals just need access to water, food, or shelter, until their natural environment recovers. The BWRC received animals with all of these conditions. On the day that the Hicatee were retrieved, there were kinkajous, turtles, a howler monkey, squirrels, opossums, and snakes – escapees from the fire or orphans for unknown reasons. One kinkajou had fled the fire with minor burns only to climb an electrical pole where it grabbed a live wire and was electrocuted. 

The BWRC’s mission is to support wildlife conservation efforts; domestic animal health and welfare; and the veterinary profession in Belize through medical services, education, research, and collaboration. Their work is big and growing all the time but they try to stay focused on their mission. In addition to the fire victims in the clinic last week, there were also confiscated animals and animals that were neglected or abused by their owners. 

Jacob Marlin first met Dr. Isabelle in 2011 when the Hicatee Conservation Network was being formed and she first visited BFREE and the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center in 2015. Because of her valuable insight and a keen interest in helping to conserve this amazing species, she was invited back to participate in all subsequent Hicatee Health Assessments and has been a strong partner ever since.

Dr. Isabelle along with Jaren Serano and Heather Barrett of BFREE provide an ultrasound to an adult female hicatee turtle during a health assessment at the HCRC. Photo by, Nichole Bishop

Dr. Isabelle has been the lead Belize veterinarian evaluating our captive population of Hicatee for over four years. She attends two Hicatee Health Assessments per year to determine the health and reproductive status of our growing population of turtles. Just like baby humans, our hatchling and juvenile turtles are especially vulnerable to sickness caused by temperature changes, nutritional deficiencies, or other stressors. For this reason, when our young turtles are failing to thrive, Dr. Isabelle takes them to the clinic for several months to give them the additional veterinary care that will help them recover. This also gives her the opportunity to monitor them in order to gain a better understanding of their needs over time.

In the four years that BFREE has partnered with the BWRC, we have been impressed by their commitment to wildlife like the Hicatee and to educating Belizeans and visitors from abroad. As their partner, we would like to advocate for their campaign to fundraise for operational expenses during this trying time.  With the halt of all veterinary trainees from abroad due to travel restrictions from Covid-19, the BWRC has lost a critical revenue stream. Like many organizations in Belize and worldwide, they are struggling to make ends meet but don’t want to furlough any of their small but critical staff when animals are still in need of daily care.

BWRC is thankful for any and all kind words, supplies or donations via PayPal to payment@belizewildlifeclinic.org.