BFREE Receives Porras Conservation Award

 
It’s not often international wildlife conferences hold their annual meeting so close to home. Fortunately, the International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) chose Belize City as the base for their 42nd gathering and we are so glad they did! 
 
The International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) provides a forum for the dissemination of information and research pertaining to the natural history, conservation biology, captive management, and propagation of amphibians and reptiles. The symposium provided a valuable opportunity to showcase the herpetological conservation taking place in Belize. 
 
BFREE Staff, Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett, Tom Pop, and Jaren Serano, attended the conference and presented on various topics. Dr. Marisa Tellez of the Crocodile Research Coalition also provided local perspective on conservation in Belize and several student presenters from southern Belize’s Independence Junior College highlighted research questions and projects pertaining to reptiles and amphibians in the country. 
 
At the close of the conference, BFREE was given the Porras Conservation Award. This award is granted in recognition of lifelong achievements in and contributions to field biology. The award is presented to a speaker (or – in this case – an organization) who has demonstrated that their work represents exceptional accomplishments in the field that benefit herpetological conservation. We are pleased and honored to have our work recognized in this way.
 

BFREE PRESENTATIONS AT THE 42nd IHS SYMPOSIUM

Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director, provided the keynote presentation. “The Herpetofauna of Belize, 30 Years of Observations, Myths, Facts and Hot Spots”
 
Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director, presented “Awareness Messaging as a Tool for the survival of the world’s most endangered turtle family”
 
Jaren Serano, BFREE Science and Education Fellow, presented “Turtle or Fish? Investigations into captive management and reproductive biology of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys Mawaii), at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center, Belize”

 

 
 

 

Birds, Chocolate, Forests, and Allegheny College

Allegheny College students pose for a photo at BFREE during the Birds, Chocolate, Forest Field Course in May 2019. 

Written By, Beth Choate, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Environmental Science and Sustainability
Allegheny College

BFREE’s Birds, Chocolate and Forests course provided students with a real life example of the complexities of conservation within the rainforests of southern Belize. Through interactive demonstrations and presentations, field research and experiments, day-excursions, conversations with all members of the BFREE team, and exploring the surrounding environment, students developed an understanding of the relationships not only between birds, chocolate, and forests, but people as well. The complicated web of relationships that exists among efforts to conserve biodiversity and livelihoods is something we speak often about in our Environmental Science and Sustainability courses at Allegheny College. In our introductory course for the major, we make it clear to students that you will not find the solutions to environmental problems in a book. Each problem is unique and requires individuals who can critically examine the issue to devise a unique and thoughtful solution. The 2-week experience with our BFREE guides was a perfect compliment to this concept. In a country where people rely on the natural resources of the surrounding forests to provide them with medicines, food, and fertile land for agriculture, it quickly became clear that you couldn’t simply tell people to stop using the forest. BFREE  provides a unique solution: conserve the forest and grow a cash crop within the understory in an effort to conserve birds and other organisms, as well as livelihood. Jacob spoke with us about ongoing efforts to ensure that methods of cacao agro-forestry were fully understood so that local farmers could create successful farms and provide for their families demonstrating that BFREE is thinking about the sustainability of their program. The complexities of conservation also became apparent when learning about the Hicatee turtle, talking with Ernesto about traditional Mayan culture, and spending time on the coast in Placencia. This course was the perfect compliment to what we are saying in the classroom:
solving environmental problems is complicated.

Students from Allegheny College spend time in the BFREE cacao nursery. The group received hands-on experience in what it takes to make chocolate, from seed – to bean – to bar!

In order to solve those complicated problems, one must be curious, flexible, and have excellent communication and intercultural skills. Many of our students had minimal experience traveling outside of the US and very few had been submerged in a culture different to their own. When students are outside of their comfort zone, they are forced to adapt and push their own limits. It is through experiencing this unknown, whether it be using compost toilets, learning to fall asleep to the sound of howler monkeys, or discovering just how difficult harvesting cacao in the jungle can be, students were forced to overcome new challenges. After reading their final journal entries, many of our students surprised themselves. They learned that they are capable of much more than they ever thought possible. Through conversations with the BFREE staff and local Belizeans we met during the trip, worldviews were expanded and communication skills improved. For many students, this was the highlight of the trip, getting to know individuals with completely different life experiences than themselves. From an educational perspective, this is impossible to teach in a classroom or while simply touring around. BFREE provided an excellent experience for students to be completely submerged in the Belize culture, all while learning in a completely new environment.

A pile of roasted cocoa beans lay on the table. These beans have a thin, papery shell around them which needs to be removed. The students are cracking the beans open and the shell is removed in a process called winnowing. The lighter shells are blown away with fans, leaving behind pieces of pure cocoa bean, known as “nibs”.

Land Snail Workshop at BFREE

Dan and Judy Dourson led a two-day workshop in the new BFREE classroom

The first workshop on the Land Snails of Belize was led by biologists, Dan and Judy Dourson, and took place at the BFREE field station in late February. The workshop’s goal was to give participants an understanding of which snails can be found in southern Belize and to train them to identify land snails with the help of  the materials that the Dourson’s created. These materials include the newly published book “Land Snails of Belize: A Remarkable Chronicle of Diversity and Function” and the associated Field Identification card.  

Students used Field ID cards to begin to identify snails

The course was designed for tour guides and educators and therefore focused on the importance of land snails in the environment, described why they matter in Belize, and also provided great examples of how to use snails in short lessons. During this hands-on workshop, the group searched for, collected, and learned to identify and sort snails.

Participants included NGO representatives, tour guides and interested members of the public. These included: Morgan Lucot, Sipriano Canti, Christian Bech, Jaren Serano, Marten Ack, Andres Chen, Rousana Romero, Marleni Coy Emillian, Joaquin Obando, Andrew Choco, and Leanne Knox.

Special thanks to Leanne Knox for providing transportation to the BFREE Field Station for workshop participants.

Due to the interest in this course, BFREE and the Dourson’s plan to partner to create future workshops on Belize’s lesser known creatures in coming years. Stay tuned!

Land Snails of Belize: A Remarkable Chronicle of Diversity and Function,” is available on Amazon. Don’t forget to use Amazon Smile to support BFREE while shopping online. The associated Land Snail Field Identification Cards are available for sale at the Belize Zoo and the BFREE field station.

Identifying Land Snails 

Searching through leaf litter to find and collect snails

 

 

Land Snails that were previously collected

Participants of the 2019 Land Snail Workshop at BFREE

 

Hicatee Awareness Month 2018 Wrap Up

Hicatee Awareness Month 2018

The Hicatee turtle, a national treasure for Belize, is seriously under threat due to over-hunting for human consumption. Listed as critically endangered, Belize offers the highest chance for its survival.

Because the Hicatee is in need of greater protection and innovative conservation actions, Turtle Survival Alliance and BFREE launched Hicateee Awareness Month, a country-wide awareness campaign in 2017.

The campaign commenced with the release of the natural history documentary “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle.” Partners supported the launch hosting community viewing parties of the film, a volunteer toolkit provided step by step instructions on how to get involved, and social media played a significant role in promoting the first ever month-long appreciation campaign for the species.
 
With helpful feedback and many lessons learned, we were prepared and excited to launch the Second Annual Hicatee Awareness Month in October 2018.

In 2018, Hicatee Awareness Month focused on formally establishing the Hicatee turtle as the National Reptile of Belize, to raise its public status and to set the stage of national pride for the rare and unique species.

The month of recognition began with BFREE’s largest outreach project to date. Curated packages of educational resources were mailed directly to 100 pre- and primary schools in Belize – targeting the Cayo District and Belize District. The materials were also made available online and emailed to nearly 500 principals and educators.

Our goal in sharing the materials is to inspire a future generation of leaders that recognize the significant cultural and historic value of the hicatee. The resources were created by educators, scientists, filmmakers, students, and passionate advocates for the use of teachers in their classrooms. They included the children’s book, The Adventures of Herbert the Hicatee, written by a preschool teacher in Belize City, Ms. Martinez, fact sheets, coloring pages, and a country-wide poster contest.
 
Our partners within Belize and in the US helped make the month a success by hosting events and fundraisers and giving presentations. Students from Sacred Heart Junior College, led by Ms. Ingrid Rodriguez, gave presentations to primary school classrooms in the Cayo District while the Jacksonville Zoo chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers hosted a Hicatee Day Event and Fundraiser at their zoo, raising funds to support the work of the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. Crocodile Research Coalition has featured the Hicatee turtle during all of their CROCtober outreach events.
 
Last week, we were contacted by a classroom from Hummingbird Elementary School in Belize City who were so inspired by the educational resources they received that they established their own Hicatee Committee.  The committee is spreading the message of conservation beyond their school to friends and family during an event on November 10th.

Now, more than ever, these words ring true, “the Hicatee is disappearing, but together we can save it!”

Additional Information on Hicatee Awareness Month 2018: 

Links to TV and News Interviews for Hicatee Awareness Month 2018 can be found here: In the News

 

 

 

 

 

Photos of Hicatee Awareness Month 2017 and 2018 can be found in our album here: Hicatee Awareness Month on Flickr!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A fun compilation video of Hicatee Awareness Month 2018 activities can be viewed here: Highlights on YouTube

 

Hicatee Awareness Month in the News

Hicatee Awareness Month in the News!

Jaren Serano, Jules Vasquez and Nelly Cadle at the TV 7 News studio

HCRC Manager, Thomas Pop, Field Course Leader, Nelly Cadle, and Science & Education Fellow, Jaren Serano had the distinct honor of being interviewed about BFREE, the HCRC, and all things Hicatee on news outlets thoughout Belize during October. We are thrilled that the media helped in bringing positive attention to work being done at the HCRC and the campaign to save the Hicatee. The preparation Tom, Nelly & Jaren did to present the awareness campaign on TV was commendable and they did a wonderful job representing BFREE.   

Talk Ah Di Town by PGTV News Network

Hicatee’s Survived The Dinosaurs But Not Modern Belize by 7 News Belize

October is Hicatee Awareness Month by Krem Television 

Belize Celebrates Hicatee Awareness Month by Love FM 

Belize Celebrates Hicatee Awareness Month by Ambergris Caye Forum 

Belize Celebrates Hicatee Awareness Month by Breaking Belize News

 

 

Professional Development for HCRC Staff

Tom had the opportunity to help with not only turtles, but also iguanas and crocodiles. 

Thomas Pop, Manager of the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center, visited the Cayo District for one week in September to receive training at the Belize Wildlife & Referral Clinic (BWRC).

BWRC offers free training for governmental and non-governmental partners in wildlife conservation issues, rescue and rehabilitation, wildlife husbandry, emergency response and more. Depending on needs they include some clinical applications as well as basic laboratory methods (with a special focus on parasitology, and fecal analysis which is so often needed in any captive or rescued wildlife species.)

The emphasis of Tom’s training was on microscopy and parasitology

While at the BWRC, Tom was exposed to veterinary techniques that will prove very useful for his work with Hicatee turtles. Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand described Tom as “an enthusiastic learner, with an interest in parasites!”

We are grateful to Dr. Isabelle and her team at the BWRC for hosting Tom and look forward to future opportunities and exchanges. We are also grateful to our partner, the Turtle Survival Alliance, for subsidizing travel costs.

Bi-annual Hicatee Health Assessments at BFREE

Dr. Isabelle and Dr. Jacobson do a full health review of a one-year-old Hicatee turtle

A team of veterinarians, zookeepers, researchers, and wildlife enthusiasts traveled to BFREE to perform health assessments on the turtles at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center.  Our fall health check occurs when females likely have eggs, which allows the team to perform ultrasounds and determine the reproductive status of the turtles.

 

 

 

Health Assessment Team: Back row (L to R) Elliott Jacobson, Cayle Pearson, Isabelle Paquet-Durand, Rich Zerilli, Stephanie Verhulst, Nichole Bishop. Front row – Heather Barrett, Saul Bauer, Tom Pop, Jacob Marlin, and Jaren Serano (not pictured Eric Anderson and Gianni Martinez)

Day 1 Examinations were performed on the 2017 and 2018 hatchlings. Under the guidance of Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, a veterinarian at Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC), and Dr. Elliott Jacobson, professor and veterinarian emeritus at University of Florida, each juvenile was weighed, measured and given a thorough exam which included careful assessment of warts and abscesses identified during previous examinations. Overall, turtles showed positive growth rates and reduction in skin problems.

The 2018 hatchlings were examined next – the veterinarians reviewed each of the 169 turtles which had already been weighed and measured on the 4th of September. Hatchlings also showed positive growth and good overall health.

Day 2 Adults and sub-adults were netted from Pond B in the morning and Pond A in the afternoon. Forty-four animals were measured and weighed and given general health examinations. All breeding sized females also underwent ultrasounds to determine the presence of follicles and eggs. One of the adult turtles eluded the nets, as did all the captive-born three and four-year-olds.

Gianni Martinez, teacher at St. Mary’s School in Belize City and author of “Herbert the Hickatee” joined the assessments on Day 2. 

Day 3 –  Because Dr. Jacobson was on-site to offer professional development training to HCRC staff, he presented a talk on “Zoological Medicine,” to the group.  Other lectures he gave throughout the weekend included “Animal Husbandry,” and “Reptile Collecting and Field Methods.”

Data collected during these assessments will add to the ongoing data set being constructed by staff of the HCRC.

Additional photos of the Fall Health Check can be found here: Flickr page.

Thanks to the Turtle Survival Alliance for providing funding for the Fall Health Assessments, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for loaning the portable ultrasound machine, and Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for providing turtle diet for continued feeding experimentation on the hatchlings. Additionally, thanks the team who contributed time, energy and knowledge to this fall’s assessment: Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, Dr. Elliott Jacobson, Thomas Pop, Jaren Serano, Nichole Bishop, Saul Bauer, Cayle Pearson, Stephanie Verhulst, Gianni Martinez, Richard Zerilli, Eric Anderson, Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett and Hyla Marlin.

Soaring with Solar

After 23 years of BFREE being an off-the-grid solar powered field station, nothing has changed, except now we have a centralized 7.5 kw state of the art solar system which is 7 -10 times more productive and has energy storage capacity more than 20 times what was on-site before. The system also has a backup autofunctioning natural gas generator for times when the sun just isn’t shining.

The system was designed by Rick Groves of Clean Energy Events based in Wilmington, N.C., USA, and Jacob Marlin. Additional design and technical assistance was provided by Wes Gubitz, as well as Marco Valle of Pro Solar Engineering based in Belmopan, Belize.

The installation took place during the first week of March. Pro Solar staff installed the photovoltaic panels, batteries, inverters, and controllers as well as the backup generator while Jacob Marlin, Rick Groves, Wes Gubitz, Glen Dell, and Beth Furr, plus all the staff of BFREE  laid wire and set up breaker boxes at various locations around BFREE. Of course, there were weeks of prep work in advance with BFREE staff digging trenches and pouring cement footings for the installation of panels, a cinder block and cement generator house, and a power house that houses all of the electrical components (the brains of the system).

During the week of installation, everyone around the field station stepped up to help. Even students from Lees-McRae College pitched in during their field course when it was time to pull wire across the garden. After the installation, Pro Solar Engineer, Marco Valle, returned to BFREE to offer an afternoon training session on renewable energy and maintenance of the system for staff. 

In the coming months, power will continue to reach additional buildings around the field station and all visitors will begin to benefit from this important and timely upgrade. This includes more lighting, fans, charging stations, and a multitude of other improvements to the infrastructure of the field station.

BFREE wishes to express much gratitude to Rick Groves, Wes Gubitz, Glen Dell, and Beth Furr for their hard work, and positive attitude to ensure the installation went perfectly! The Pro Solar team was extremely professional and skilled. The resulting system has surpassed our expectations and we are thrilled by the immediate and obvious benefits to all station users. 

Special thanks to Dr. James Rotenberg and students in his Fall 2016 Environmental Studies class at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. They created an initial design for the solar system as part of their semester long project on sustainability.

Take the Hicatee Pledge!

Earlier last year, BFREE Program Coordinator, Tyler Sanville, stitched together the “SAVE THE HICATEE” banner while on a visit to the Field Station. She cut letters out of old bed sheets and sewed them on one by one. The banner was first signed by Natural Resource Management students from Independence Junior College. 

The banner quickly became a symbol for all of those who have taken the ‘Hicatee Pledge’ to show their support. The pledge is an agreement that communicates shared conservation goals for the critically endangered turtle.

Today, the banner is covered with signatures from visitors to the Field Station and supporters of the ‘Hicatee Pledge’ at the Turtle Survival Alliance Conference held earlier this summer. 

Now is your chance to have your name added to the “SAVE THE HICATEE” banner! Help us reach our goal of adding an additional 1,000 signatures during Hicatee Awareness Month. 

Taking the pledge is easy! Read the pledge below, then upload a #shellfie of yourself wearing something green for the hicatee turtle. Use hashtags #Shellfie and #SaveTheHicatee so that we see it! 

Thank you to all of our Hicatee Heroes that have already taken the pledge and signed the banner.

The hicatee is disappearing, but TOGETHER we can save it! 

International Turtle Conservation and Biology Symposium

The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) was featured in the 15th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Fresh Water Turtles.  The meeting, which is the largest gathering of non-marine turtle biologists in the world, was held in historic Charleston, South Carolina and attended by over 300 participants.

Heather Barrett and Peter Paul van Dijk at the Turtle Survival Center. Peter Paul was honored during the symposium with the John L. Behler Turtle Conservation Award

Turtle Survival Center Field Trip

Field trip participants visited enclosures throughout the Turtle Survival Center

The pre-symposium field trip to the new Turtle Survival Center was a highlight. The TSC is owned by Turtle Survival Alliance and represents a new and important direction for the organization. The Center is a captive setting for turtle and tortoise species that are critically endangered and that face an uncertain future in the wild. The TSC is dedicated to building up robust captive populations of these species. On Sunday, hundreds of participants were bused from the conference hotel to the TSC in order to tour the Center’s many facilities including the various complexes, the incubation room, and areas that are still being developed.

Hicatee Presentations

Symposium activities officially began on Monday. BFREE staff were honored to be invited to present the latest news and outcomes at the HCRC.  As part of the Captive Husbandry session, Jacob Marlin detailed the development of the HCRC as a facility and described what has been learned on site about the reproductive biology of the Hicatee.

Heather Barrett presented “Country-wide Efforts to Promote the Conservation of the Critically Endangered Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) in Belize, Central America.” She outlined the recent history of conservation outreach for the hicatee including the formation of the Hicatee Conservation Network and the

Each TSA project country is featured in a poster at the Turtle Survival Center

production of a documentary film. Heather’s session was followed by a special film screening of “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle.” This was the first time the new documentary by Richard and Carol Foster was shown publicly. “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee,” was well received by the audience who was eager to view rare underwater footage of the turtle and appreciated the breadth of information covered in the short film.

In addition to BFREE staff presenting HCRC findings at the conference, Nichole Bishop, Ph.D. Candidate from the University of Florida, described her research related to the 2017 hicatee hatchlings in her talk, “Is Coprophagy an Important Management Decision for the Captive Breeding of Herbivorous Turtles?”

The symposium offered many opportunities for conversations and brainstorming on issues relating to the hicatee and other endangered turtles and tortoises. The symposium was an uplifting and inspirational event and BFREE staff left feeling impressed by the countless individuals dedicating their lives to the conservation of turtle species around the globe.