Celebrate the 5th Annual Hicatee Awareness Month!

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

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

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

Since 2017, Hicatee Awareness Month milestones include: 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon Embarks on 2nd Year

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TSA-NAFTRG Turtle Survey at BFREE

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Introducing Jonathan Dubon, BFREE Science & Education Fellow

Jonathan Dubon, BFREE Science & Education Fellow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HCRC Pond Cleaning

For the past two weeks, Tom Pop and Jaren Serano have had the challenging yet important task of cleaning each of the three turtle ponds at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center. With large, deep, muddy pools, the work is labor-intensive but critical to the health of the nearly four hundred Hicatee turtles in residence here.

The ponds were tackled one at a time starting with Pond A. This pond is dedicated to Breeding adults, so all turtles had to be caught and placed in holding tanks where they stayed throughout the cleaning process. Additionally, other wildlife like swamp eels and red-eared slider turtles and some larger fish like Tuba were also caught and placed in nearby creeks. 

Jacob Marlin and “Mustang.”

The actual cleaning process involved using a Honda Trash Pump (fondly referred to as “Mustang” due to its amazing strength and speed) to remove huge volumes of water as well as leaves and muck that had been gathering at the bottom of the ponds over the past few years. This has been followed by filling the ponds with fresh water to rinse the pond liner and dilute the thick muck, and then, once again,  using the trash pump to remove more diluted muck and dirty water. This cycle repeats until the water in the ponds is clear and there is little to no detritus remaining at the bottom. Each pond has taken about seven days of hard labor. 

With Ponds A and B complete as of May 17, the team has started on the rearing pond. The first task has been to lower the water to about two feet in the center in order to catch the over 200 juveniles living there. The “muck” which includes turtle manure is drained into an area outside the fenced area of the HCRC. The material gathered there will rest and break down before being relocated and used as compost for trees in our cacao agroforest.

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.

Spring Health Assessment 2020

Between February 28th and March 1st, a total of 341 turtles (45 adults in the breeding population and 296 captive hatched animals) were assessed at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). The primary purpose of the spring health assessment was to perform a basic exam of the overall health of the captive population at the HCRC, to look for follicles and eggs in breeding-size females and to PIT-tag animals.

Ultimately, we would like all turtles at the HCRC to be identified using a scute notching system and also a Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tag. A PIT tag is a small radio transponder that contains a specific code, which allows individual turtles to be assigned a unique 10 or 15 digit alphanumeric identification number. Unlike acoustic tags that actively send out a signal, they are “passive” and do not require a battery. Rather than the tag transmitting a signal, the tag scanner (or reader) sends out a radio frequency and when a tag is within range, it will relay the identification code back to the receiver. The lack of a battery is the greatest advantage of the PIT tag since it allows for the production of much smaller tags that can be used on smaller organisms, which should last the life of the turtle. 

As in past assessments, two days were dedicated to measuring, giving health checks and ultrasounds to adult and subadult turtles. A day and half was dedicated to PIT-tagging all of the captive born turtles in the 2018 cohort as well as the ones from the 2017 cohort that had yet to be tagged.  

We were thrilled to have a great group of return volunteers from last year’s spring assessment, as well as new participants from Jacksonville Zoo, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, and recent graduates of Independence Junior College in Belize. The team worked tirelessly over three days to ensure that every turtle received the attention it needed.

We were grateful to receive support and assistance from the following participants in our spring health check: Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, Veterinarian at Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC); Glendy Delcid, BWRC; Cayle Pearson, Supervisor of Herpetology, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens; Meredith Persky, Veterinarian, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens; return volunteers, Doris Dimmitt, Rodney Dimmitt, Tim Gregory, and Emily Gregory; and new volunteers, Jesse Rope, Jonathan Dubon and Ajay Williams 

We would like to express our gratitude to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for their continued financial support spring health assessments at the HCRC and to the Turtle Survival Alliance for supplying the PIT tags and associated equipment. Finally, a special thanks is in order to Doris and Rod Dimmitt for supplying Tom Pop with new waders to keep him warm and safe from leeches!