Recognizing the severe pressures that wild populations of the Central American River Turtle – locally known as Hicatee – face due to human consumption, and given the catastrophic declines throughout their range, the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) determined that techniques should be developed to breed and manage this species in captivity. After frustrating attempts to launch a program in Mexico, efforts switched to Belize. In 2013, TSA and BFREE developed a partnership to create the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) at the BFREE Field Station in order to investigate the reproductive biology of the species with the goal of building assurance colonies to aid in reintroductions.

Our intention has been to develop the captive management protocols followed by a recovery plan in Belize and, once successful, BFREE and TSA would attempt to expand those methods into Guatemala and Mexico. The HCRC is the only facility in Belize maintaining Hicatee in captivity to study aspects of its biology and behavior. The HCRC presently has 45 breeding adults and has produced over 1,500 turtles spanning nine year-classes.

Below are the staff of BFREE who manage operations of the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center and who support Hicatee Awareness Month – BFREE’s national awareness campaign to save the Hicatee from extinction.

Meet the BFREE Staff of the HCRC and Hicatee Awareness Month

Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director and Hicatee Program Director

Raised in Washington, D.C., Jacob had a passion for the natural world at a very young age, focusing on reptiles and amphibians. He has been working with reptiles for over 40 years, including U.S. Federal, State, and local agencies. Jacob worked at Zoos early in his career, including Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington D.C., Santa Fe Teaching Zoo in Florida, the Dallas Zoo in Texas, and the Toledo Zoo in Ohio. He maintained a large private captive breeding colony of diverse herpetofauna for over 20 years. Since 2011, Jacob has spearheaded the development and overseen the operations of the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at BFREE, as well as championing the broader countrywide efforts to ensure the long-term sustainable management and conservation of the species through advocacy, raising awareness, coordinating symposia, and meetings, fundraising, disseminating information and networking with multiple partners. He coordinates and facilitates associated research and short, medium, and long-term planning for the ultimate survival of the species.

Tom Pop, Hicatee Conservation and Research Center Manager 

Tom was hand-picked to be the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center Manager in 2014, just after the facility was established. Tom was selected due to his extensive field experience supporting multiple researchers and multiple taxa over decades. The TSA originally trained Tom on Hicatee population monitoring in 2010. He manages both the HCRC and this project. His responsibilities include daily care, monitoring turtles, maintenance of facilities and turtles, oversight of interns and students, and data collection. Additionally, Tom remains highly valued and sought after for his skills as the leading Hicatee field technician in Belize.

Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director and Hicatee Program Administrator 

Heather Barrett is the BFREE Deputy Director who splits her time between the BFREE Field Station and North Carolina. She coordinates all administrative responsibilities for the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center, including reporting, documentation, staffing, training, and the like. She also oversees the development of all outreach activities and educational materials. In 2017, with the support of partners like Turtle Surival Alliance, she established Hicatee Awareness Month as a strategy to gain countrywide attention for the Hicatee.  Heather has been a member of Board of Directors for the Turtle Survival Alliance since 2020.

Barney Hall, BFREE Wildlife Fellow and Hicatee Program Assistant

Barney has been with the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center since June 2022. He has an associate’s degree from University of Belize, where he majored in Natural Resource Management. Barney collects and manages data for the HCRC, develops quarterly activity reports, and assists in animal management and facility maintenance activities. Barney loves nature. He grew up exploring the Belize River and is very interested in encouraging others to also be explorers. He is a current member of the Hicatee Awareness Committee.

Nelly Cadle, Hicatee Awareness Month Committee Coordinator 

Nelly is a graduate of Independence Junior College Tourism Program. She began work with BFREE in 2014 as a Field Course Leader and Tour Guide for the Field Station programs. She has been involved with educational outreach in surrounding communities and leads international study abroad groups at BFREE. In recent years, she has become more involved in Hicatee Outreach activities, and in 2020 became the Hicatee Awareness Month Committee Coordinator. After a year off, she has rejoined the team in 2023.

Jaren Serano, Dermatemys Program Coordinator

Jaren first worked with BFREE between 2017 and 2019 as the NGO’s first Wildlife Fellow. After graduating from University of Florida with his master’s degree, Jaren has returned to Belize as the Dermatemys Program Coordinator. In his new role, Jaren would like to help promote governmental recognition of the Hicatee, with the hope that existing regulations can better align with the long-term sustainability of the species. Additionally,  he aims to engage the community and foster a nationwide appreciation for D. mawii as a crucial member of Belize’s riparian ecosystems, rather than solely viewing it as a food resource.

Mark Canti, Graphic Assistant

Mark graduated from Independence Junior College with an associate’s degree in Natural Resource Management. He worked at BFREE between 2021 and 2023 as the Cacao Fellow during which time he was responsible for data collection, the cacao adopt-a-tree program, and more. Mark took a particular interest in photography during his time at BFREE and has begun expanding that interest into graphic design. He has joined Team Hicatee part-time to expand his skills and support the materials created for Hicatee Awareness Month.