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.
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.
BFREE Program Manager, Tyler Sanville, used data created by visiting and resident biologists to develop a complete list of the known organisms with the exception of snails, insects, and butterflies documented to date in the BFREE Reserve, along with their IUCN Status and Population Trend.
Known species found on the BFREE Privately Protected Area include six endangered (EN), seven vulnerable (VU), and twenty-one nearly threatened (NT) species of wildlife.BFREE’s Wildlife & Conservation Status Directory includes 95 mammal species, 324 bird species, 71 reptile species, 27 amphibian species, and 27 fish species. This list is based on the most up-to-date information available and is by no means complete. You can view the entire list of the nearly 550 species found at BFREE below.
It is no secret that the global pandemic has significantly impacted travel. For BFREE, that has meant a drastic reduction in all types of visitation over the last two years from researchers, specialists, eco-tourists, to our annual Field Courses. However, things are slowly but surely changing, and we are ecstatic to have had our very first student groups back at BFREE since February 2020!
Nearly two years to the day since our last student group, we welcomed two groups from an organization new to BFREE, ARCC Gap Year Abroad. ARCC offers summer and gap year programs for students focused on community-driven and community-led sustainable projects around the world. The two student groups visiting BFREE alternated between 5-nights at BFREE and 5-nights on the Belize Barrier Reef. Each group was made up of ten students and two instructors. The groups volunteered with BFREE’s cacao agroforestry program supporting the growing nursery and painting signs for trees on the farm. Additionally, students learned to make chocolate from bean to bar.
Other highlights include being the inaugural guests to sleep in the newest accommodations at BFREE, The Hammock, exploring the Rainforest on a boundary line hike with Protected Areas Manager, Canti, and meeting and learning from all of the incredible and inspiring staff at BFREE.
These students are part of a 70-day program that will take them from the Rainforest to the Barrier Reef, to sea turtle restoration and surfing in Costa Rica, and finally exploring the Panama Canal over the next two months.
What an amazing adventure these students are on – wishing them all a safe and incredible trip!
Below are a collection of photos taken by BFREE staff and volunteers of both the ARCC GAP GROUPS A and B during their time at BFREE in February 2022.
By Jacob Marlin
After 12 years of raising awareness and developing a strong Hicatee conservation program, BFREE in partnership with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), is pleased to announce the creation of the new position of Dermatemys Program Coordinator within the BFREE organization. We have contracted Dr. Ed Boles, a naturalized Belizean who brings more than three decades of experience and leadership from a freshwater ecological perspective, along with strong relationships with government, NGO’s, and local community members. Dr. Boles will help foster the necessary collaborations needed to create a holistic regional program to ensure the Hicatee has the best chance of survival into the future.
Dr. Boles began his new role on February 1st, 2022. The two of us are already working closely together along with other BFREE and TSA staff and local community members to become fully acquainted with the many activities, accomplishments, challenges and stakeholders involved in the conservation and sustainable use of the species. In the coming months, we will be advertising for an “Assistant Dermatemys Program Coordinator” position to be filled on July 1st, with the intention that the assistant position will slide into the coordinator role after Dr. Boles completes his one-year contract.
We have ambitious goals for 2022, and we are excited to keep you posted on our efforts to advance the conservation of this unique and culturally important species.
BFREE internship opportunities have returned since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. After more than two years of not hosting interns, Autumn Dietrich is welcomed with open arms to BFREE for a 10-week program from January to March 2022.
Autumn is no stranger to BFREE. She first visited on a Field Course as an undergrad with Western Michigan University in 2018. On a hike with Protected Areas Manager, Sipriano Canti, Autumn describes the experience as having changed her life. Impressed by the sheer scale of life that existed at BFREE, she hiked with her fellow classmates winding through trees, climbing embankments of creeks, and cutting through giant leaves. The hike led the group to the Ranger Observation Post on the boundary of BFREE and the neighboring farming village of Trio. Autumn’s excitement turned to dismay as she witnessed for the first time the harsh boundary line between a healthy and thriving forest and a large expanse of farmland. At this moment, she felt an overwhelming feeling that she wanted to help make a difference and help support protected areas. She knew she would come back to BFREE.
After graduation, Autumn applied to return to BFREE as an intern for three months, April – June 2020. At the time, we had no idea we would soon be facing a global pandemic. Determined not to give up on her dream to return to BFREE, Autumn’s postponed trip came to fruition this year when she traveled to Belize in January.
Autumn worked alongside BFREE staff during her ten-week internship, providing invaluable support. Her first week was spent documenting and assisting a research crew from Kutztown University. They are establishing a long-term experiment that quantifies the influence of Yucatán black howler monkeys on biodiversity and ecosystem function in Belize. She then assisted Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti on a large-scale survey of the cacao farm to determine the farm’s overall health. When not focused on collating the cacao survey data, Autumn assisted Housekeeping Manager, Ofelia Cus with preparing accommodations for visitors and BFREE Chef, Edwardo Pop in the kitchen.
In addition to supporting BFREE’s various conservation initiatives, Autumn, immersed herself in learning and experiencing Belizean culture. She was honored when Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam and his wife Gina invited her to spend a weekend with them at their home in Golden Stream. Autumn loved spending time with Elmer and Gina’s two children, Esther (12) and Travis (9), and enjoyed a delicious homemade dinner of panades, a dish that’s similar to empanadas but with a Belizean and Mayan twist.
Living full-time at BFREE for ten weeks brings plenty of challenges. The remote location and intense heat are not for the faint of heart. However, Autumn not only thrived during her two+ months, but she also brought so much joy and laughter to the BFREE community. Thank you so much, Autumn, for your sincere dedication to BFREE’s mission and for being an incredible and loyal team player. We all look forward to seeing you amongst the giant ceibas again one day!
Professional photographers, videographers, and documentarians Jorge Silva Rivera and Carlos Miguel Herrera traveled from Chiapas, Mexico, to BFREE for 10-days in February 2022. Working with Zamia Media, the pair set out to document the people, facilities, wildlife, and natural beauty of BFREE. Zamia Media will then use the images and videos captured during their time to create updated visuals for BFREE to use on our website and in other marketing materials.
The duo has vast experience documenting remote, hard-to-reach places throughout southern Mexico and has worked to discover and learn more about some of the most ancient and biodiverse locations in the world.
During their time at BFREE, they spent several days interviewing all of the staff and many of the volunteers and other visitors who overlapped with their visit. They used multiple drones to capture BFREE’s privately protected area and spent hours photographing the flora and fauna throughout the property. It was an honor to host Jorge and Carlos at BFREE and such an incredible experience to have them alongside our team for nearly two weeks.
We understand the importance of documenting our work and sharing the incredible place that is BFREE. However, it can be difficult to do so when all of the other work is so demanding. We are so grateful to have had these two professionals join us so that we can continue #BringingBFREEToYou!
BFREE Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti, continues to shine in various disciplines at BFREE. In his first year of the two-year Cacao Fellowship program, Mark has proven to be talented in cacao grafting and data collection. Though his focus is primarily on cacao, Mark has expressed that his interests are more than just agroforestry and that he is particularly fascinated and inspired by the wildlife that surrounds him while working at BFREE.
This week, Mark continued to illustrate his passion for wildlife, working through the weekend to support BFREE’s bi-annual Hicatee Health Assessment. Last year he participated in an online Wildlife Veterinary course offered by Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC), and now he put some of the skills he learned from Dr. Isabelle to the test.
The 2022 Hicatee Health Assessments’ purpose is to determine the sex ratio of the captive-born turtles as well as collect growth data and review the overall health of a subset of turtles. Additionally, ultrasounds were performed on adult female turtles.
Donning his Hicatee Hero t-shirt, Mark fit right in with Team Hicatee and was an invaluable addition to the team. In addition to shadowing the veterinarians performing necropsies and endoscopies, Mark has helped with data collection, photographing the various activities, and supporting all of the other important aspects of the health assessment.