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



BFREE Donation Needs

Thank you for choosing to donate to BFREE!

Due to our remoteness and the harsh tropical climate, obtaining and maintaining supplies can be a great challenge for BFREE staff. Please use this guide as a reference point for up-to-date needs at the BFREE Research Station. We can provide a letter acknowledging the dollar value of your donation at the time it is received. 

If you are visiting BFREE in person, please consider making a littler extra room in your bag when packing for your trip to bring any small donations you can carry such as batteries, headlamps, books or first aid supplies such as antihistamines, pain-relievers, antibiotic ointment, anti-itch creams, and band-aids.

If you are not visiting the BFREE Research Station in person and would like to donate any of the below items, please contact BFREE directly at: contact@bfreebz.org


One of the many challenges BFREE faces operating in a tropical climate is the harsh impacts the weather has on our electronics. The BFREE staff heavily depend on access to electronics such as lap tops, cameras and GPS units to properly support our many ongoing activities and research endeavors. However, the extreme humidity and harsh rainforest climate causes these electronics to fail in a relatively short amount of time. We would greatly benefit from any donation of new or gently used electronics and supplies. 

Current needs consist of: 

  1. Batteries – AA and AAA batteries are a necessity at BFREE and are especially important in headlamps when our staff lead groups on night hikes. Unfortunately, batteries purchased in Belize are generally knock-off brands that don’t last through more than a few uses.
  2. Headlamps – Headlamps are essential to functioning at night at BFREE. Preferred headlamps are ones with a strong beam as well as with rechargeable batteries or that are able to be charged with a USB. Black Diamond and Petzel make great rechargeable lights with strong beams. 
  3. Laptops – New or Refurbished laptops to be used for email, photo upload and storage as well as word processing are greatly appreciated. Laptops with Microsoft Office already loaded is ideal.
  4. Digital Point and Shoot Cameras – Cameras have one of the shortest lifespans in tropical settings yet are one of the most important tools used. New or gently used point and shoot digital cameras are needed to document wildlife, people, research activities and are used by BFREE Rangers when encountering illegal activity on the property. Digital cameras that are waterproof and have rechargeable batteries are ideal. Some of the best brands we have used are Olympus Cybershot, Panasonic Lumix, and Nikon Coolpix. 
  5. Digital SLR Camera – New or gently used Digital SLR cameras with a good zoom lens is needed for avian techs to document birds while completing bird surveys around BFREE. 
  6. Solar Lights – There is no electricity available for our Rangers when they patrol our boundary line and camp at their Observation Post. Solar lights are very useful for our Park Rangers to use while patrolling at night to eliminate the need of continuously replacing batteries in headlamps. 


BFREE’s library is moving to a new location at the Cacao Discovery Center. With more space and a designated room; it is an exciting time to both replace bug-eaten, humidity drenched books and expand with additional resources.  We are interested in materials that help student, researchers, and staff better understand the habitat, wildlife and other aspects of tropical living. We would greatly appreciate any addition to our library.

Possible book and resource topics might include:

  1. Field Guides for the tropics (birds, mammals, insects, reptiles, plants, fish, etc)
  2. Laminated ID cards specific to the region
  3. Belize Travel Guides
  4. World Atlas and Maps (book form)
  5. Tropical Ecology
  6. Rainforest conservation
  7. Agroforestry
  8. Captive husbandry of reptiles (turtles in particulars)
  9. Protected Areas
  10. Watershed Ecology


The BFREE Research Station is located off of a 10km/6 mile unpaved dirt road. The entrance road requires a lot of maintenance and diligent care to remain passable by our 4×4 truck. 

  1. Tractor – A tractor with a front end loader would be of great assistant in maintaining the entrance road. 
  2. Utility ATV – ATV’s are used by our Park Rangers to patrol the BFREE property as well as to transport gear around the field station’s 1,153 acres. 


BFREE is a registered 501c3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and conservation of the Maya Mountains Massif. BFREE’s mission is “to conserve the biodiversity and cultural heritage of Belize.” As the only field station in this biologically significant area, BFREE seeks to achieve its mission by successfully integrating scientific research, environmental education and conservation, while also enhancing sustainable development and providing alternative livelihoods for local community members. We can provide a letter acknowledging the dollar value of your donation at the time it is received

Hicatee Health Check

This year’s first Hicatee health check  took place on April 4th and 5th at the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC).

The HCRC, a joint effort between BFREE and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), is a captive-breeding facility for the critically endangered Central American River Turtle (more commonly known as Hicatee). Captive-breeding offers the potential to produce offspring for release and repatriation into areas that have experienced widespread declines or extirpation. Additionally, specimens maintained in captivity provide valuable opportunities for studying aspects of the species’ reproductive biology, diet and behavior that would otherwise be difficult to observe or study in the field.

The April health checks assessed the nearly 100 hicatee turtles in captivity at the HCRC.  First, hatchlings 9 months to 2 years old followed by the 45 adults from each of the two ponds were weighed, measured (plastrons, carapace, tail, and nails), checked for overall physical conditions, and reproductive evaluations were performed.

The team consisted of Dewey Maddox, Veterinary nurse, and Emily Fyfe, Senior Herpetology Keeper, from the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Robert Mendyk, Curator of Herpetology at the Audubon Zoo, Dr. Isabel Paquet-Durand, founder and director of the Belize Wildlife & Referral Clinic, Dr. Raymond Carthy, Nichole Bishop and Dr. Sean Sharp from the University of Florida, Vanessa Kilburn from Toucan Ridge Ecology & Education Society, and Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett, Tom Pop, Jaren Serano and Tyler Sanville of BFREE, as well as volunteers Will Jones and Tybren Vialdores and Aimee Mitchell.

BFREE aims to complete bi-annual health checks on the turtles housed at the HCRC to help further inform and influence conservation strategies and actions. The next health check is scheduled for September 2018.

Currently, Dermatemys mawii is classified as Critically Endangered (facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the near future) by the International Union for Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), listed as endangered under the provisions of the U.S. Endangered Species Act (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Special note for our friends in the US: If you find yourself near The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, be sure to visit the Emerald Valley Aviary where you can see three hicatee, the only place in the US where this rare and unusual turtle is on exhibit.


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.

Meet Lauren, Hicatee Hero

Lauren is BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin’s niece. Last year, Lauren first learned of BFREE’s work to save the critically endangered hicatee turtle.  She immediately became a passionate advocate on their behalf, donating all of the change in her piggy bank.

This summer, Lauren traveled to Belize along with her family to visit her uncle at the BFREE Field Station and to finally meet the turtles she was already an advocate for. 

We called Lauren to let her know BFREE was recognizing her as a #HicateeHero. Her response was priceless. 

Thank you, Lauren, for giving us all so much hope. You are an inspiration and we are proud you are on Team Hicatee!

Lauren Maclean, BFREE’s youngest volunteer, and Hicatee Hero helped HCRC Manager, Tom Pop at the HCRC while visiting the BFREE Field Station this summer.

Summer Intern Spotlight: Parr McQueen

Parr McQueen, an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond traveled to Belize with BFREE earlier this year along with thirteen other classmates. The Field Course led by Dr. Amy Treonis and Dr. Kristine Grayson was focused on using experiential field methods to learn how scientists study the natural world.

Inspired by his trip and what he learned during his semester-long course, Parr returned to BFREE this summer. For just over a month, Parr spent his time working in the field, collecting data to support his research examining cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. When he wasn’t busy taking soil samples, Parr explored the many trails around BFREE snapping incredible photos of the wildlife he discovered.

We are so fortunate to have hosted Parr for the second time this year. We can’t wait to see all of the great things he will accomplish!

My Summer Internship at BFREE

By: Parr McQueen 

Earlier this summer I had the fantastic opportunity to stay at the BFREE field station for five weeks as part of the summer internship program. As a current undergraduate student at the University of Richmond, this was a great educational opportunity for me. Doing anything from assisting with the care of the Hickatee turtles to working with school groups, I was able to experience the rainforest more than any week-long field course could offer. This was an incredible experience with too many good memories to write about and has certainly made me grow, providing a stepping stone for future career prospects. In addition to the internship program, I made use of my time in Belize to conduct my own research.

My research examines cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. In much of the developing world, forests are being cut down at increasing rates for traditional agriculture. Slash and burn farming is prevalent and it is occurring right up to protected area boundaries, reducing habitat for endangered species and contributing to climate change. Deforestation in the tropics has been estimated to make up 29% of the total emissions from fossil fuels and other sources that cause global warming.

BFREE has an ongoing project to help promote cacao agroforestry, which is a much more sustainable farming method that still provides income for local farmers. This is a way of planting cacao, the raw product to make chocolate, within the established rainforest instead of in a traditional field. Rather than cutting the forest to the ground, smaller plants are thinned out and large trees are left in place. In many studies, this has been shown to preserve biodiversity by providing habitat for avian and mammalian species, but no work at all has been done examining how the microorganisms are affected. With the help of Dr. Amy Treonis, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Richmond, I am attempting to answer this important question.

While in Belize, I sampled soil from replicate cacao agroforestry farms and the adjacent undisturbed rainforest. Currently, in Richmond, I am in the middle of processing the soils to extract microscopic nematode worms. Nematodes are a commonly studied microorganism and are a good indicator species of soil health. I will be looking at the makeup of the nematode communities present in the soils to get an idea of the health of the soil in the agroforestry systems compared to the health in the undisturbed rainforest. This research is important because we need to know if the cacao agroforestry is impacting the health and biodiversity within the soil. While we can see the colorful birds and cute mammals prospering, we have no idea if the microorganisms in the soil are thriving or not. Healthy soil microorganisms carry out critical nutrient cycling and decomposition processes that are essential to having a fully functioning ecosystem.

Overall I had a wonderful time at the BFREE field station and was able to learn a lot, by fully immersing myself in the day-to-day operations, while at the same time strengthening my own personal research program.


2017 BFREE Field Courses

BFREE 2017 Field Course Season wraps up this month with 172 students and instructors visiting the Field Station from as far as Scotland and Alaska. Eleven courses in total, including two junior colleges and one primary school from Belize, all traveled to our small slice of paradise off the Southern Highway.

BFREE field courses are each uniquely developed by the lead instructors and BFREE staff. Courses are created to reflect each school’s curriculum and goals. While each group is different, visitors to BFREE share many similar challenging and rewarding experiences.

Upon arrival to Belize, each group is welcomed at the airport by a BFREE Tour Guide. If you have the pleasure to be greeted by Nelly Cadle then you know you are in for a treat! Nelly’s experience, knowledge, and passion for her country and work are hard to match.

The hike from the Southern Highway to the BFREE Field Station is a memory hard to forget. Traversing several distinct habitats, each with unique plants and animals, leads you to the Bladen River, towering cecropia trees, and your final destination — The BFREE Field Station.

While at BFREE, groups not only learn about the various ongoing program work but have the chance to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with first-hand experience supporting BFREE’s conservation initiatives. Students have the opportunity to visit the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a breeding and research facility for the critically endangered hicatee turtle as well as the 15-acre cacao and coffee agroforest, home to over 12,000 cacao trees.

Assigned by their instructors, many students are tasked with developing research questions and collecting preliminary data while spending several days working on independent projects.

Students may choose to participate in various field experiments such as conducting river studies in the Bladen River, setting up small mammal traps for the Small Mammal Community Study or surveying selected plots in the Fruit Phenology Study.

In addition to the BFREE Field Station, many groups incorporate a marine component, learning about the second largest barrier reef system in the world, snorkeling from various islands around Belize.

There is nothing quite like traveling to a remote field station deep in a tropical rainforest to create memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

On behalf of all of us at BFREE, we would like to extend a sincere thank you to all of the instructors, administrators, students, and parents that helped make the 2017 BFREE Field Season one of the best yet! We can’t wait to see you all again!

If you are interested in visiting BFREE, whether it be a student group, family vacation, solo adventure or interest in volunteering, we would be thrilled to have you! Contact BFREE Program Coordinator, Tyler Sanville at tsanville@bfreebz.org for more information.


2017 BFREE Field Courses 


For even more Field Course information check out these links below: 

University of Richmond Story Map

Click the link above to visit the University of Richmond’s Story Map put together by the fourteen students that visited BFREE this year.

Vermont Commons School Video: Belize is Our Classroom!

Vermont Commons School creates a compelling video documenting their trip to BFREE, check it out on YouTube: Belize is Our Classroom! 

Volunteer with BFREE

BFREE is now looking for volunteers to work with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop and the nearly 70 newly hatched hicatee turtles. Visit the link below for more info!

BFREE flickr Page

Find even more photos from the 2017 BFREE Field Course season on flickr!

Slideshow on Student Alumni Facebook Group

Watch all the group photos from 2017 in this slideshow on the BFREE Student Alumni Group Page. If you are a student alum, be sure to follow along!








A Day at Lime Caye


Lime Caye is an exciting destination and snorkeling here is probably one of the most adventurous parts of your journey. While every student going to Lime Caye looks forward to the snorkeling, the little island has so much more to offer. Your days at Lime Caye are going to be full of adventure, wild life and so many memories.

seacucumberLime Caye is located within the Sapodilla Cayes Marine Reserve, a nationally protected marine reserve established in 1996. The island  is amongst the southern most group of islands in the Belize Barrier Reef which is the second longest barrier reef in the entire world.

As your day at Lime Caye begins you will eat breakfast, probably fry jacks, creole bread, or Johnny cake,  which are all local favorites. From there you’ll get ready to snorkel and adventure the waters near Lime Caye. Be sure to lather up with some environmentally friendly sunscreen before you hop in to the water to avoid burns and hurting the reef. On your first snorkel the Marine staff will fit you for the gear they have provided and give a tutorial about how to use it. Don’t be worried if you’re not a strong swimmer or have never snorkeled before, the buoyant snorkel vest will keep you floating and the staff is always near by if you have any questions or concerns. While you’re snorkeling you will come across many marine organisms you may not recognize. Feel free to ask the staff what they are and any other questions you have about them. Like the student pictured to the left, you may have just come across a Sea Cucumber! Before touching any wildlife make sure to ask your guide if it is okay, they know which ones you can touch and how you should handle them. Touching some of the animals or coral could hurt you or the wildlife so this is extremely important. Your snorkel trip will last anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour, then it’s time to head back to shore, dry off, and get ready for some island activities.

screen-shot-2016-11-10-at-11-00-08-amLime Caye has plenty of entertainment for during the snorkeling breaks. Whether you are playing volleyball, journaling, preparing your project if you have one, exploring the island, having a hermit crab race or just relaxing on the beach, the time will fly by and soon it will be lunch time! For lunch you can usually expect tortillas, beans, rice and steamed veggies. If your group goes fishing, fresh seafood caught by you will also be served. These foods are all Belizean favorites and are staples to their meals at home. After lunch you’ll have a little bit more of down time and then it’s time to hop back in the Caribbean Sea!

Depending on how long each snorkel trip ifishs, you may go snorkel for a third time or you may head over to Hunting Caye. Hunting Caye is an adjacent Caye where the Belize Fisheries Department and the Belizean Coast Guard will give a presentation. The presentation will be all about how they control illegal fishing, the laws of the marine reserve, and some of the wildlife you may have encountered. If a marine biologist is also at the presentation you’ll likely learn about the lion fish, the coral reef, and any project they are working on at the time. Feel free to ask them questions, they love to talk about Belize and give the students as much information as possible.

Once the presentation is over you’ll head back to Lime Caye to grab some dinner and relax for the night. You can expect food similar to lunch, a stew, or a new recipe if Ms. Sandra is feeling creative. Many students like to take a little nap in a hammock while they watch the sunset from the beach. Once you start to get tired, which will probably be early after such an adventurous day, you can grab a shower and head off to bed. While staying at Lime Caye you will be sleeping in a dorm like building, each room has two bunk beds prepared for you when you arrive. If you dare to be different, some students will stay in a tent or even sleep in a hammock.

Whether you are at Lime Caye for a night or for three nights you are guaranteed to have an adventurous story to tell about the locals, the animals and plants you saw in the sea, or even the hermit crab races. The island is calling you, get ready to answer.


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