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.

#CantiCam documents wildlife in the cacao agroforest

For over two years, Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, has managed a BFREE research project to document wildlife movements throughout the reserve. At all times, he has eight to twelve Panthera wildlife cameras strategically located to capture patterns and activities of mammals and sometimes birds.

Canti has decades of experience with documenting wildlife using these types of cameras. He has worked with visiting researchers focused on different species and to answer different research questions. Therefore, he knows where to place cameras to best document activity.

With the development of the cacao agroforestry program at BFREE, he saw a unique opportunity to find out which animals are utilizing the cacao and when.

He began placing the cameras in several of the cacao blocks in areas where he anticipated a lot of movement. And the results have been successful. He routinely spots jaguars, tapirs, tayras, agoutis, coatis, deer as well as ground birds like common paraques and great currasow. The cameras also capture the movements of humans who utilize the property, which becomes important documentation for the protection program.


These cameras provide proof that the cacao agroforestry system provides healthy habitat for a diversity of species. As the farm grows and changes, we are excited to see how the density and diversity of wildlife is also changed.

The Review Of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements

by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP)

The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP) has partnered with Dr. Lambert A. Motilal to create a comprehensive evaluation of all cacao-growing countries around the world. The Review Of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements is a 300-page review is comprised with riveting information regarding the history, genetics, flavor profiles, and cultivation areas of each country.

The purpose of the review is to enrich readers with the understanding of cacao origins, migrations and explorations of cacao varieties have taken place over time, and where future collections should be focused.

Cacao is an important tree crop impacting on livelihoods of millions of farming families in tropical and sub-tropical countries worldwide. This review serves to help conserve cocoa genetic diversity by identifying places for in situ collection and germplasm collection for ex situ genebanks.

To celebrate the launch of The Review, Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director and HCP President, participated in a webinar with Dr. Motilal and Anne Zaczek, HCP Executive Director. The event was hosted by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) as part of their on-going webinar series.

You can now download your copy of #TheReview on at the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund website! We encourage cacao enthusiasts to donate to the research efforts that made this publication possible, and to support future research possibilities, Heirloom cacao, and HCP farmers.

The Science of Fine Chocolate

by Jacob Marlin

The flavor attributes of chocolate, especially fine flavor chocolate, is determined by numerous factors: 1. Genetics of the cacao, 2. The farming practices implemented, 3. The location, biophysical features, and climactic conditions of where it is grown (also called terrior), 4. The time of harvest, 5. Fermentation protocols, 6. Drying methods, and finally the chocolate-making including, 7. Roasting and, 8. The final recipe. Each of these factors has tremendous variability and requires specific expertise to successfully implement the management and interventions.

Fermentation is a critical aspect in flavor development and final acidity of a finished chocolate bar. You can’t hide bad fermentation in chocolate. If the beans are over-fermented, they yield an undesirable, wet “barnyard” type flavor. If they are under-fermented, the results are an astringent attack on your tastebuds that causes your mouth to pucker.

Even with the best farming practices producing the finest beans, if the fermentation is not done to its fullest potential the results will be disappointing at best. Our work to determine this important stage in producing some of the world’s finest chocolate is an important part of our current efforts.

BFREE began a collaboration with Dancing Lion Chocolate in Manchester, New Hampshire, to begin to determine the best fermentation protocols for Criollo cacao. Crioco Cacao’s Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam, and I managed the fermentation experiment at the BFREE Field Station. Because there is no information on successful fermentation of the rare and ancient Criollo cacao, we had to undertake our methods based on limited information. We instituted three separate fermentation protocols and upon completion sent these batches to Dancing Lion Chocolate, where my good friend and colleague Rich Tango-Lowy and my son, Shaman Marlin, processed the beans into chocolate using a standardized roasting methodology. These three profiles were then molded into exquisite artfully designed hand crafted limited release specialty chocolate bars. Dancing Lion Chocolates is not your typical chocolate shop. Each bar is a work of art – visually dazzling and delicious. And chocolate is made in small batches and only one time in that exact way, they never repeat the same recipe twice. Rich has used BFREE Criollo cacao in the past on a few specialty bars and bonbons. After visiting BFREE with his wife, Torene, and Dancing Lion’s Baker, Donna McLintock, we began a conversation on how to improve and refine our fermentation methods.

I’m thrilled to announce that our initial collaboration was a success. Chocolate from these three different batches will be sold this year through Dancing Lion Chocolate. I’m especially proud to acknowledge Shaman Marlin who has been working at Dancing Lion for over a year and was responsible for making the chocolate in these bars! A very limited supply will be available in the shop and online after Thanksgiving. The bars can be identified by Criollo I, Criollo II, and Criollo III.

By determining the best fermentation protocols based on continuous feedback, revisions can be made until the process reveals the unique flavor attributes intrinsic to this unique cacao. In 2016, the BFREE cacao beans and chocolate were designated “heirloom fine flavor” by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP), one of only 16 cacao varieties throughout the world to receive such an honor. In order to get designated “Heirloom Fine Flavor”, beans are submitted to HCP blind, meaning the chocolate maker, in collaboration with Guittard Chocolate, does not know where the beans were sourced. Once made into chocolate liquor and chocolate, it is tasted, also blind, by a 9-person panel made up of the world’s most expert chocolate tasters. If the flavor meets a very high mark, the beans are designated Heirloom. Based on those results and additional feedback and reviews, we are confident that this Criollo cacao is unlike any other cacao in the world, and this inspires us to continue our efforts to master the process, from the nursery to fermentation to chocolate bar.

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.

Pollination and Paternity Testing

By Holly Brabazon

Dr. DeWayne Shoemaker and Holly Brabazon of University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Would you believe that small biting midges are cacao’s main pollinator? They’re only about the size of a pin head, and they don’t fly very well either, but with how small cacao flowers are, and how they’re shaped, cacao has to rely on the tiny midge to pollinate its flowers. Unfortunately, midges worldwide do a poor job pollinating all the flowers made by cacao trees. Only a small percentage of flowers get pollinated, and even then, only a few of those pollinated flowers receive enough pollen (about 115 pollen grains) to make a fully formed, viable pod.

A first step to better understand pollination in cacao is to study pollination of wild-growing cacao. To date, only a few studies exist on wild cacao pollination, and many questions about pollination remain unanswered. For instance, we still do not know how many times a flower needs to be visited to be fully pollinated, how often flowers are pollinated with pollen from the same tree, or how pollen is moved around the forest. Not to mention, we only have a rough guess of how far a pollinator can even travel. These are some of the questions I will investigate as part of my PhD research.

To start answering these questions, we will gather genetic information from all the wild cacao trees growing in the forest at BFREE by sequencing the DNA of these trees. There are about 300 wild trees at BFREE, and thanks to Elmer Tzalam, Mark Canti, and the cacao team’s hard work, each and every tree has been visited, georeferenced using GPS, and labeled with a metal tag. We were able to use these GPS coordinates to find and collect leaves from many of the trees at BFREE in June 2022. Now, Lenardo Ash, a BFREE Cacao Science Fellow graduate and student at the University of Belize, has taken on the responsibility of collecting leaves from the remaining trees. Once the leaves are collected, we will extract and sequence their DNA. These genetic data will allow us to identify unique DNA tags for each tree, like a fingerprint, from the unique patterns in their DNA.

With these DNA “fingerprints,” we can learn a lot about the natural history of the cacao growing in the forest at BFREE. We will see how genetically diverse the population is and determine if there are unique clusters of trees with similar genetic variation. Many other cacao populations in the world have genetic mechanisms to prevent self-pollination, and we will see if those same genes are found in the BFREE trees.

We also will use these genetic data to figure out exactly which trees are pollinating other trees’ flowers, just like a paternity test. To perform our paternity experiment, we collected pods from several wild cacao trees growing out in the rainforest at BFREE. We brought those pods back to the nursery and planted the individual beans in bags of soil, making sure to carefully label each soil bag to indicate which tree the pod came from. The beans are growing in the nursery right now. Once the seedlings have leaves big enough to collect, we’ll sequence their DNA. Then we’ll do a paternity test on each seedling to identify who the father tree is that contributed the pollen. Once we know who the father tree is, we’ll map how far pollen traveled to pollinate the flower on the mother tree. This information will allow us to search for patterns of pollen moving around the forest. With pollination being a limiting factor in cacao production, our studies may ultimately help cacao farmers increase production with better pollination management. We just need to better understand how cacao pollinators move around the forest and what they are capable of in a natural rainforest environment.

We had an amazing time working with all the great people at BFREE. It was an adventure to explore a pristine rainforest searching for cacao trees, and I can’t wait to see what we learn from our results!

Third Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop

Developing a Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, in Belize

Co-hosted by Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Zoo New England (ZNE), and the Belize Fisheries Department, the Third Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop was held online via a Zoom webinar on May 17, 2022. The purpose of the Hicatee Conservation Workshop was to bring together stakeholders to begin to develop a Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle in Belize. Organized by Dr. Ed Boles, BFREE Dermatemys Program Coordinator, with the support of BFREE staff, the workshop was facilitated by Ms. Yvette Alonzo with technical assistance from Mr. David Hedrick of TSA. The workshop was attended by 38 professionals supporting Dermatemys mawii research, conservation, and outreach, including key Government officials from the Belize Fisheries Department.

Hicatee Conservation Forum Breakout Groups

Participants divided into five breakout groups in previously identified focal areas of: Laws, Regulations and Enforcement; Community Outreach, Education and Social Research; Captive Management and Reintroductions; Biological and Ecological Research, and in situ Conservation. The groups were tasked with discussing background, ideas, and concerns for 59 proposed actions divided among seven conservation goals. Further they were responsible for modifying action descriptions, eliminating irrelevant actions, and adding actions the group identified as appropriate.

Hicatee Conservation Forum Participants

Breakout Groups Members of the Breakout groups 
Laws, Regulations, and EnforcementFelicia Cruz, Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department – Chair, Jacob Marlin, Executive Director, BFREE – (first half), Gilberto Young, Inland Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department, Peter Paul van Dijk, Red List Authority Coordinator of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, Thomas Pop, Hicatee Conservation & Research Center Manager – (first half), Debora Olivares (note taker)
Community Outreach, Education, and Social ResearchHeather Barrett, Deputy Director, BFREE – Chair, Conway Young, Administrative Officer, Community Baboon Sanctuary, Jonathan Dubon, Wildlife Fellow, BFREE, Paul Evans, Outreach Officer, University of Florida, Emilie Wilder, Field Conservation Officer, Zoo New England
Captive Management and ReintroductionsBryan Windmiller, Director of Field Conservation, Zoo New England– Chair, Elliott Jacobson, Veterinarian, University of Florida, Brian Horne, Wildlife Conservation Society, Calvin Gonzalez, Outreach Officer, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Isabelle Paquet Durand, Veterinarian, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Dudley Hendy, Fisher, Jacob Marlin (second half), Thomas Pop (second half), Julie Lester (note taker)
Biological and Ecological ResearchDay Ligon, Professor of Biology, Missouri State University – Chair, Boris Arevalo, Wildlife Conservation Society, Donald McKnight, Turtle Biologist, La Trobe University, Thomas Rainwater, Research Scientist, Clemson University, Venetia Briggs-Gonzalez, Director, Lamanai Field Research Center, Manual Gallardo, Olmaca University, Guichard Romero, D. mawii researcher in Mexico, Vanessa Kilburn, Director, TREES  Eduardo Reyes Grajales, D. mawii researcher in Mexico, Jessica Schmidt (note-taker)
In situ ConservationAndrew Walde, COO, Turtle Survival Alliance – Chair, Elma Kay, Managing Director, Belize Maya Forest Trust, Tim Gregory, TSA and BFREE Board Member, Yamira Novelo, Technical Assistant, Wildlife Conservation Society, Denise Thompson, Per Course Faculty, Missouri State University, Ed Boles, Dermatemys Program Coordinator, BFREE  
*Attendees who were not able to participate in Breakout Groups were Rick Hudson, Turtle Survival Alliance and Tyler Sanville, BFREE

Workshop Results

Results of the workshop yielded a 33-page transcript capturing input from participants, which will serve as a supporting document for the compilation of the first draft of the “Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, in Belize”. A follow-up workshop to review the draft will take place later in 2022. Completion of an integrated and inclusive plan for Belize, guided by research and decades of traditional fisher experience, is the goal. If successful in this country, the content will be exported as guidance for similar plans in Mexico and Guatemala.

The overall theme of this very successful workshop can be described as taking actions to increase research, conservation, and restoration initiatives that are inclusive of local communities and the promotion of community-based management through the full D. mawii range. Farmers, fishers, youths, and all concerned citizens are recognized as vital partners in ensuring the survival of D. mawii into the future – a theme that shall be tightly woven into the resulting conservation, management and action plan.

Freshwater and Terrestrial Turtle Survey – Year Two

by Eric Munscher

This year, we, members of the TSA – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG), had a team of ten people fly down to trap turtles on the BFREE private reserve in southern Belize. If you have never been to Belize, I highly recommend it. The country is beautiful and the people are wonderful. Working with the people at the BFREE Field Station on this project has been so much fun.

This is our second year of a planned 10-year survey of freshwater and terrestrial turtle species on BFREE’s 1,153-acre private reserve. Last year, we identified several species range extensions and caught seven of nine freshwater and terrestrial species known in Belize. The survey is valuable information not only for the TSA, NAFTRG and BFREE, but for the country of Belize where very little data exists on many of these species.

During the first 12 days we caught 221 turtles representing 8 species. The holy grail capture of this trip was finding our first Narrow Bridged Musk Turtle (Claudius angustatus), which is a really cool and understudied species of musk turtle. One that is not known from southern Belize. We ended up catching a dozen including some juveniles and a hatchling indicating a viable breeding population.

Our team also helped kick off a new grad student project for Collin McAvinchey who will be staying in Belize for most of the month of July tracking Tabasco Mud turtles (Kinosternon acutum). Collin’s project started off slow due to weather conditions. Finding adult Tabasco Mud Turtles was more of a challenge this year than last year. Still the data he is gathering is surprising and amazing. As of yesterday, he is now tracking ten of these turtles all over the rainforest. For a mud turtle they seem to act more like box turtles….

I am really looking forward to generating our first manuscripts from this work and seeing Collin’s thesis come together. I’m also excited to return next year! A valuable and exciting part of this program was the opportunity for citizen scientists to contribute to a long-term dataset. There will be opportunities next year for additional participation.

Thanks to an amazing crew Arron Tuggle, Madeleine Morrison, Nicole Salvatico, Stephen Ross , Tabitha Barbree Hootman, Luke Pearson, Becca Rádio Cozad, Georgia Knauss, and Collin McAvinchey. Also to the BFREE team: Thomas Pop, Barney Hall, Jonathan Dubon, Heather Barrett, Jacob Marlin, and many others, thank you for all of your efforts and hospitality and making this project such an early success! Finally, thanks to Tyler Sanville for supporting our travel logistics and to Eddie Pop who kept us well fed and always ready to get back out into the field.

To read more about last year’s survey, read Under the Shade They Flourish: Beginning A 10-Year Study in Belize published by SWCA Environmental Consultants and TSA-NAFTRG Survey at BFREE.

Genetic Analysis of Dermatemys mawii

BFREE’s second Hicatee (Central American River Turtle) Health Assessment of 2022 took place on July 5 and 6. These dates were much earlier than normal because there was an opportunity to conduct a much-needed genetics study. Dr. Natalia Gallego Garcia traveled from Colombia to collect the samples that will be used for genetic analysis. With the help of Luke Pearson and Isabelle Paquet-Durand, she was able to collect 44 samples from the 46 adult captive turtles in residence at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). Collected samples will be stored at BFREE until export permits are received. The study is critical to the on-going work at the HCRC and for the Hicatee program in Belize.

Improving Captive Management

Using this genetics study, Natalia will implement a paternity analysis. Data collected will be used to assign all the clutches hatched at the HCRC to a mother (dame) and to potential fathers (sires). We will also gain an understanding of the reproductive output of the species by determining which captive adults are reproducing and how often. Results will be used to improve captive management protocols.

Supplementing Wild Populations

Further, the study will help us determine the genetic composition of wild populations and understand how to supplement those populations with captive animals if necessary. Dr. Gallego-Garcia will conduct a population genetics analysis that includes wild samples in Belize as well as Mexico and Guatemala.

In addition to the genetics study, morphometric data was collected on all adults as well as the majority of juveniles. Dr. Isabelle and her assistant performed ultrasounds on all adult females and identified follicles already forming in many of the turtles.

Finally, because a survey team from Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG) was onsite, Natalia was able to collect samples from a subset of those turtles as well.

Hicatee Health Assessment participants

UCLA Shaffer Lab – Natalia Gallego-Garcia; TSA- NAFTRG turtle survey team members – Eric Munscher, Collin McAvinchey, Becca Cozad, Tabitha Hootman, Arron Tuggle, Georgia Knaus, Maddie Morrison, Nichole Salvatico, Luke Pearson, and Stephen Ross; TSA and BFREE Board Member – Tim Gregory; Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic – Isabelle Paquet Durand; BFREE – Tom Pop, Jonathan Dubon, Barney Hall, Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett

Natalia Gallego García received her Ph.D in 2019 at Universidad de los Andes. For her dissertation, she used landscape genomics to determine mechanisms affecting the functional connectivity in two endangered and endemic turtles in Colombia. She conducts work through UCLA’s Shaffer Lab as a postdoc, working on a range wide landscape genomic analysis of the red-footed tortoise across South America, with a particular emphasis on Colombian population differentiation.

Saying goodbye to 55 Hicatee turtles

No, more like saying see you later!

By Jonathan Dubon

Watching your children grow up and eventually moving on may be hard for some, but it is something that takes place by nature. Although I am not talking about real children, it still feels the same when I release Hicatee turtles that I have helped to take care of over the past 2 years. The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) is a multi-pronged conservation effort for Hicatee, with one of the tasks being head-start rewilding.

On April 1st, I along with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop, loaded 55 juveniles and hatchlings from the HCRC at BFREE, to be taken to a creek in north central Belize – roughly 4-hours’ drive. Upon our arrival, we met with the Feste Films crew and locals from the nearby community to conduct our releases. There was a turnout of around 15 community members, including adults and children. Feste Films documented our release as a part of their upcoming four-part series ‘Belize Uncovered’ to be available online later this year. The well-known local chef, Sean Kuylen, and International Journalist, Gelareh Darabi, were the interviewers for the film and so participated in all the day’s activities.

Community participation

Before the actual release of the turtles, we gathered and talked about why we are releasing turtles and how important they are to the environment and to the culture. I asked the children “why do you think releasing juvenile Hicatee turtles is important?” I got responses such as: “because they are getting scarce”, “it is better for the wild environment” and the one that stood out the most to me was “because they are critically endangered”. We visited this village in August of 2020 and did a much smaller release, and many of the children who attended then, also attended this time around. To know that information shared a couple years ago is reiterated and remembered means that we are on the right track.

I also mentioned to the community that we are not just releasing turtles to say we do, but we are releasing them to be a part of a long-term studying and monitoring project since this is an active study site for us. All our turtles that were released have unique identification codes, which are placed by scute notching and inserting PIT tags (a microchip inserted under the skin of the turtles). This will allow us to accurately collect data for each turtle and monitor their growth rate, age and so forth.

When it was time to place the turtles in the water, we let every child who attended release a turtle. Hopefully, this will spark a love and passion in them for protecting this species. We only released 10 of the 55 at the creek’s bank where everyone was gathered. After which, Tom and I got into 2 canoes and went up stream to release the remaining 45.

Reflecting on the day

Tom was asked, “How do you feel to release these turtles? Are you sad that you are saying goodbye?” He replied, “I am happy and excited to release these turtles. Even though they have been under my watch and care since being hatched, and I have tried my best to raise these turtles, there is no better caretaker than mother nature herself. I believe with the help of the community and everyone else, we can help them to grow and reproduce on their own. Then we can say we have successfully reintroduced Hicatee turtles into the wild.”

Overall, it was a wonderful and amazing experience that not many can say they have gotten the chance to be involved in. When we were driving off, the mood of everyone was so cheerful and bright, not because we were leaving, but because we accomplished something so important and unique. I look forward to more releases in the future and spreading information with people who may not know.