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.

BFREE Press Release, 1 October 2020

1 October 2020

Press Release: Fourth Annual Hicatee Awareness Month – Be a Hicatee Hero!

Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), Turtle Survival Alliance, and our partners invite you to join us in the celebration of the fourth annual Hicatee Awareness Month. This October, we invite all Belizeans to put on a cape and transform into Hicatee Heroes. Together we have one task – to save the critically endangered Hicatee turtle. 

The Hicatee turtle is the only living species in an ancient family dating back 65 million years. Once widespread they now exist as remnant populations in parts of Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. The species is undergoing rapid and severe decline due to overhunting for human consumption. The hicatee is now critically endangered and in need of greater protection and innovative conservation actions. Belize offers the highest chance for its survival. 

Thanks to the hard work of a committee of talented artists and committed conservationists, we created all new materials for this year’s Hicatee Awareness Month. These include songs, videos, games and activities that are fun and educational for all ages. We are also resharing some of the materials that have been favorites in the past. With Covid-19 restrictions in mind, we have created all virtual activities so that even if you are stuck at home, you don’t have to miss out.

Follow BFREE Belize on Facebook (@BFREEBelize) and Instagram (@BFREEBZ) throughout October to participate in the celebration. The hicatee is disappearing, but together we can save it. Be a Hicatee Hero!

For interview requests, quotes from Hicatee Awareness Month Committee Members, to be added to our email list for updates, or additional information on BFREE’s conservation efforts to save the critically endangered hicatee, please contact Ms. Ornella Cadle at education@bfreebz.org.

Hicatee Conservation Educational Resources: https://www.bfreebz.org/2020-hicatee-resources/

Take Action, be a Hicatee Hero https://www.bfreebz.org/hicatee-actions/

Our Presence Matters

Head Ranger, Sipriano Canti “Canti”, identifies wildlife tracks while on routine patrol.

Around the world, the question is being asked: How does the pandemic impact threatened species and protected areas? The answer seems to be a resounding: We don’t know, but we suspect in some good ways and some bad ways. Wildlife and protected areas are likely benefited by less human presence and disturbance and also negatively impacted by unregulated use and illegal resource extraction including illegal poaching.

We know that the pandemic has led to the closure of many protected and conserved areas around the world. The consequences of closed protected areas are many and include staff layoffs and loss of livelihoods, suspension of critical research and monitoring programs, suspension and or decrease of ranger patrols resulting in possible illegal and environmentally damaging activities.

In Belize, both terrestrial and marine protected areas have seen periods of closure in short bursts since the pandemic was declared in April. The additional stress of dry season fires in April and May across the country and the early advent of hurricane season has made these challenges even greater. Protected Areas staff struggle to continue responding to these natural disasters while also continuing their daily work with less mobility due to Covid-19 restrictions and fewer staff.

At BFREE, our park rangers feel the stress of those restrictions yet maintain their important tasks in spite of the challenges. Throughout the pandemic, they have continued to come to work 24/7, patrolling the 1,153 acre property and its boundaries which connect us to nearly 1.5 million acres of lowland tropical rainforest.

Rangers and BFREE staff have also continued to document wildlife and weather patterns as part of our long-term monitoring programs.  We are entering our fifth year of an Agami Heron nesting population study in collaboration with the international Agami Heron Conservation Working Group. In partnership with Jungle Encounters, Inc, we continue to collect data on wild cats, specifically Jaguarundis, Ocelots and Margays, using camera trapping technology. Weather data has been collected since 1995 and continues both in hand-written form and via Hoboware weather stations situated throughout the property. Additionally, observational data is collected on the movements of Scarlet macaws and Harpy eagles in the area.

Monitoring wildlife will help us understand which animals utilize which pieces of the property and whether their populations are increasing, remaining stable or declining. Similarly, monitoring weather helps us understand how Belize’s climate changes over time.

By continuing to do the important work of patrolling the BFREE privately protected area and monitoring wildlife and climate, we not only protect the land around us, we contribute important information that helps better guide conservation policy and interventions over the long-term.

Releasing Hicatee with Belize’s Next Generation

Six years after the first Hicatee egg was laid and hatched at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) at BFREE, we released 145 hatchlings turtles into the wild – representing the first significant release of captive bred and hatched Hicatee in Belize. The release not only provided the opportunity to increase the wild population, but also and most significantly to conduct a comparative early-life stage growth study of the 2020 cohort of 185 Hicatee hatchlings. Turtles were randomly assigned groups which were then designated for 1) release into a natural closed aquatic system with no other Hicatee present, 2) release into a natural closed aquatic system where other Hicatee are present, 3) release into an natural open aquatic system where other Hicatee are present, 4) release into the HCRC rearing pond at BFREE, and 5) kept in tanks indoors at the BFREE lab. After, eight weeks, turtles are recaptured, weighed, measured, and data collected on a number of parameters to compare the conditions of each group to determine overall health.

One of the release sites located adjacent to a wildlife sanctuary a nearby village provided the opportunity to get local community members involved. Representatives from BFREE, Belize Turtle Ecology Lab, and the Belize Fisheries Department met village leaders and a small group of school children one morning in early August. The organizations introduced the community to the captive-breeding program taking place at BFREE, presented on current Hicatee research, reviewed Belize’s laws pertaining to Hicatee, and described current outreach efforts including the upcoming fourth annual Hicatee Awareness Month in October. After the presentation, the group walked to the river’s edge where they released a dozen of the critically endangered captive-bred turtles into the wild.

The release and the associated outreach event represent a major milestone in our ongoing effort to save the Hicatee turtle from extinction. These milestones could not have been reached without the ongoing support of our project partner, the Turtle Survival Alliance. Their belief and engagement in Hicatee conservation efforts has allowed the project to continue moving forward even in the most difficult of times.

Members of the Belize Turtle Ecology Lab and BFREE pose for a photo during the community outreach event.

Turtle Survival Alliance Live Webinar at BFREE

BFREE joined the TSA for a live video chat from Belize where we shared the latest from the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center. This included an up-close look at the critically endangered adult and juvenile turtles as well as a surprise appearance from babies hatched that day. 

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.

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.

Un-Belizeable Land Snails Activity

Land snails in Belize can be found in a variety of habitats.  They are important food for many birds that live in Belize including currasow, crested guan, and other larger birds.  Coatis and other mammals also eat land snails. 

Biodiversity:  The health of an ecosystem can be determined by the different kinds of land snails found in an area or it’s biodiversity. Read the introduction of the attached card to learn more about the importance of land snails in Belize. Download Land Snail Diversity of Belize card here.

Citizen Science: Participate in our on-going research of the land snails of Belize by going out in your backyard or neighborhood to search for land snails.

Because this is the dry season, you will likely not find many live snails but that’s okay!!  You don’t need live animals to figure out what species (kind) of snail they are.  All you need is the shells.

Activity: HOW TO LOOK FOR AND COLLECT LAND SNAILS

Snails like moist places (but not too wet!) where plants are growing. 

  • Get a stick and use it to scrape leaves and sticks at the base of plants and trees.
  • Look around the edges of concrete buildings (snails like calcium for building their shells and can often find it on concrete).
  • Pick up as many shells as you can.
  • Take the shells back to your house and if you have a ruler, measure the length of the snails (using millimeters or mm).
  • Use the attached card to figure out which group of snails they belong to.
  • Write down your answers.
  • Abundance:  Count how many of each type of snail you find.  Make a graph to show your results.

Finally, if you have a phone that takes pictures, take pictures of your snails along with what you think they are and send them to contact@bfreebz.org or post on Facebook and tag @bfreebelize!

Download Land Snail Diversity of Belize card here.