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Celebrating Earth Day

Students from Keene High School in Keene, New Hampshire helped BFREE staff celebrate Earth Day by planting seeds. This is Keene High School teacher, Matt Brady’s, fourth trip to Belize and to BFREE. He is joined by fellow teachers, Christine Gillis, Monica Foley, and Jodie Ballaro. Their group was scheduled to come to the field station in 2020 but was cancelled due to the pandemic. They tried again last year with no luck. This makes us especially thrilled to host them in 2022.

In a BFREE interview with Mark Canti and Jonathan Dubon on Facebook Live for Earth Day, Matt described why he wanted to return. “BFREE is a really special place for lots of reasons. I’m really happy to be here to meet young people like you. People who contribute to the ecology of the area and are conservationists. That is very important to me, the way BFREE is set up to keep young people coming in from the area. This is why we keep coming back.”

In a surprising turn of events for dry season, it began raining at 9am during the student orientation. The rain continued throughout the morning and into the afternoon, but this didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The students continued their orientation and tour of the facilities. After lunch, everyone divided into groups for service projects. Nine students helped with planting germinated cacao seeds in the nursery. An additional fourteen students helped at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center where they assisted in a project to improve the exterior fence. The remainder of the students supported the long-term large mammal research project by checking camera traps on the property.

We are grateful that Matt, Christine, Monica and Jodie worked so hard to come back to BFREE this year.

Creating Strong Rootstock for Heirloom Cacao

Grafting is the preferred method of vegetative propagation for cacao (Theobroma cacao). Grafting allows farmers to choose the qualities they want in their trees and reduce expenses related to sourcing cacao trees. But before a tree can be grafted, you must grow the rootstock.

This year our seeds are coming from Ana Maria farm in Guatemala to create our rootstock. This variety has been bred over many years to produce a strong and robust seedling that is fast-growing, can withstand drought conditions, and provides excellent rootstock for BFREE’s heirloom criollo cacao.

In Guatemala, pods are cracked open and the best cacao seeds are carefully selected. After that, they are disinfected for any possible fungal disease. Finally, they are germinated and are ready for transport. Ten thousand seeds will travel to Belize and reach BFREE today in order to be planted tomorrow on Earth Day.

Special thanks to Erick Ac for providing the cacao seeds and the wonderful photos!

Testing sugar content in cacao

Cacao staff at BFREE are learning to harvest cacao pods when they are the sweetest. Last month, Elmer Tzalam and Mark Canti harvested cacao pods to test sugar content at different stages of ripeness. They carefully opened each pod one at a time. Then they scraped out several beans and place them in a mesh bag. They squeezed a few drops of juice from the bag onto a tool called a refractometer. Finally, they held the refractometer to their eye and looked into the direction of a bright light source. As a result, they received a reading of “degrees brix” which is the sugar content of an aqueous solution. 

One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution and represents the strength of the solution as percentage by mass. Brix Refractometers are built to measure the sucrose content of a sample through refraction. These meters are capable of incredibly quick and accurate results and are used often in the food and beverage industries. 

The wild, heirloom criollo cacao at BFREE has never been grown in a farm setting. Therefore, the data we collect is new information to the cacao industry and is part of our efforts to characterize this ancient heirloom fine flavor variety. By using tools like the refractometer, we will begin to better understand the most desirable moment to harvest a pod.

Additional info about how Brix refractometers work

Traditional refractometers are handheld analogue instruments. They are held up to the light, so that it shines through the sample. The light is then directed through a prism and lenses onto a measurement scale. A shadow will be case on the measurement scale at the angle where total internal reflection occurs. Observing this shadow through the eyepiece gives the brix reading.

A special thanks to Skyler and Austin from the visiting ARRC group for their enthusiastic participation in this process.

Introducing #CantiCam

Puma or Mountain Lion caught on BFREE Camera Traps 2021

This July, BFREE launched a new wildlife monitoring program with Panthera Wildlife Cameras. These cameras are designed to endure the wet, humid rainforest conditions and are perfect for the BFREE Privately Protected Area. Protected Areas Manager and Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, is tasked with managing the project. Canti states “With this monitoring program, we are playing an important role in identifying the wildlife that utilize the property. Not only for their homes but as a pass through to the neighboring protected areas.”

Sipriano Canti, BFREE Head Ranger, checking a wildlife camera in the young cacao agroforest

Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, has identified three goals for the project. 1. Several cameras will be situated in the cacao agroforest and will look at the species utilizing the area and their abundance over time; 2. Monitor and observe the species found throughout different parts of the reserve; and 3. Contribute to a regional jaguar monitoring research program.

Fun with Social Media

The wildlife cameras are also giving us a great opportunity to share with our audience the many cool things that move around the property on a daily (and nightly) basis. Look out for regular updates under these themes and more! #TapirTuesday #WildcatWednesday #FurryFriday #CantiCam

Journal Article on Predation of Turkey Vulture at BFREE

A Turkey Vulture shortly after being captured by a Boa Constrictor at the field station of the Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education in Belize. Photo by Heather Barrett

Press Release #7: Reprinted from the Raptor Research Foundation

Journal of Raptor Research 55(3)

Predation on Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura): A new observation and review

Authors: Steven G. Platt, Heather A. Barrett, Leonardo Ash, Jacob A, Marlin, Shane Boylan, and Thomas R. Rainwater.

The Turkey Vulture is a relatively well-studied scavenging bird common throughout much of North America. However, certain aspects of its life history, especially predators and predation remain poorly known. In a recent study, an interdisciplinary group led by Steven G. Platt (Wildlife Conservation Society) described the predation of an adult Turkey Vulture by a large Boa Constrictor in Belize, Central America. The authors then analyzed the 11 previously published accounts of predation on Turkey Vultures. Most of these reports are equivocal, with identification of the predators based on forensic interpretation of carcass damage, tracks found at nests, and presence of nearby burrows inhabited by predators, rather than on direct observation of predation events.

The authors could find only three unequivocal reports of predation on Turkey Vultures, all of which involved large predatory birds. “Our results are surprising” says Platt. “You’d think that because Turkey Vultures are large, rather ungainly birds that are slow to take flight when gathered at a carcass, they’d be taken by predators more frequently, but that actually doesn’t appear to be the case.” Although the reason why Turkey Vultures are rarely killed by predators remains a mystery, the authors speculate that high levels of pathogenic bacteria present on their feathers, skin, and viscera render Turkey Vultures unpalatable or possibly even toxic to many predators. Predation on Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura): A New Observation and Review is available at http://www.bioone.org/toc/rapt/current

Boa Constrictor beginning to swallow Turkey Vulture. Photo by Lenardo Ash.

About the journal: The Journal of Raptor Research is a peer-reviewed, international journal dedicated to the dissemination of information about birds of prey, and is the official publication of the Raptor Research Foundation.

First BFREE Cacao Fellow Completes Program!

BFREE Staff celebrate Lenardo’s last day as the Cacao Fellow on Thursday, August 19th.

BFREE’s first Cacao Fellow, Lenardo “Leo” Ash, is graduating from his two-year work-training program this week. He will immediately begin studies at the University of Belize, where he will work toward his Bachelor of Science in Natural Resource Management. Lenardo began his Fellowship in July 2019 under the mentorship of Cacao Program Director, Erick Ac. He spent the remainder of that year “learning by doing” and was completely immersed in all things cacao agroforestry. By early 2020, Leo was well-versed enough on the topic that he was able to start co-presenting to BFREE’s visiting students and researchers.

In March 2020, the COVID-pandemic closed BFREE to visitors and a by-product was the uncertainty of the continued employment of all of BFREE staff. When land borders closed, Erick Ac was no longer able to travel from Guatemala to Belize to oversee the cacao program. Unfortunately, the academic components of Leo’s program fell to the wayside for a while as BFREE’s administrative staff focused energy on ensuring the safety of the BFREE staff and finding the financial means to keep as many people employed as possible.

In spite of the lost opportunities for his professional development including canceled travel plans, research projects, and conferences, Lenardo showed great determination in maintaining his path toward personal and professional growth. Lenardo began practicing Spanish during virtual weekly meetings with Erick, he birded with other BFREE staff, and he participated in Herpetology 101 learning the Scientific names of all the turtle and lizard species on the reserve. He asked for reading assignments to expand his knowledge on cacao and agroforestry and eagerly accepted any opportunities to give virtual presentations to BFREE audiences.

Because of his strong interest in photography, Lenardo began photographing birds and other wildlife around the property. Last July, he spotted a ten-foot boa constrictor attacking a turkey vulture and immediately ran to get a camera and to notify other staff. Images and videos that Leo took of the predation event helped provide details for a scientific article, which will be published in the September 2021 issue of the Journal of Raptor Research.

Earlier this year, Lenardo was invited to be a part of a research team hired by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. Along with researchers from all over the world, Lenardo spent nearly six months compiling a literature review that explored cacao genetics across the globe.

Lenardo has never given up his dream of continuing his education beyond his Associate’s Degree, so he applied to the University of Belize and was accepted for August 2021 admission. Although, we are sad to lose such a valuable team member, we are excited about Lenardo’s bright future and can’t wait to see where his journey will take him.

Platt, S.G., Barrett, H.A., Ash, L., Marlin, J.A., Boylan, S.M. and Rainwater, T.R. Predation on Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura): A New Observation and Review, Journal of Raptor Research. Vol. 55(3), September 2021. Pp. TBD

The Bladen Review 2018

The fifth edition of BFREE’s annual magazine is now available in an interactive format online at Issuu! Get the latest news from the field station and learn about exciting research, conservation and education projects taking place in and around the rainforests of Belize. 

Highlights of the 2018 magazine include: a quick look back at the year, updates on the conservation and outreach programs associated with cacao agroforestry and the Hicatee turtle, and stories from new staff. Also, learn more about the unique eco-tour opportunities scheduled for 2019. 

Click here to download a PDF of The Bladen Review 2018.

Film Viewings

BFREE Summer Interns Manuel Balona (back row left) and Jaren Serano (seated center) at Esperanza Primary School in Cayo, Belize

October has been filled with exciting Hicatee events in Belize and in the U.S. We are grateful to our dedicated partners in conservation and education who work tirelessly to ensure that their communities learn the value of protecting Belize’s treasured wildlife.

Film viewing events serve audiences of all ages. Activities during events include an introduction to the hicatee turtle, questions to determine existing knowledge about the species, a viewing of the 16-minute film, post questions to determine knowledge learned with prizes for correct answers and an opportunity to take the Hicatee pledge. 

A young student signs the Hicatee banner.

Two Esperanza students hold a Save the Hicatee banner created by Manuel Balona

Featured Events:

September 28, 2017, Wilmington Art Hive Gallery & Studio, Wilmington, North Carolina. Hosts: Clean Energy Events and Art Hive

October 10, 2017, Esperanza Primary School, Cayo. Hosts: Sacred Heart Junior College and BFREE.

October 12, 2017, Placencia Village.  Hosts: Crocodile Research CoalitionSouthern Environmental Association and Fragments of Hope

October 13, 2017, Ocean Academy, Caye Caulker. Hosts: Crocodile Research Coalition, FAMRACC and Ocean Academy

October 13, 2017, Toucan Ridge Ecology and Education Society, Alta Vista. Host: T.R.E.E.S. 

October 17 – National Hicatee Day, The Environmental Research Institute at University of Belize is hosting a film event at noon in the Jaguar Auditorium.

October 17 – The South Carolina Aquarium in Charleston, South Carolina will do a special film viewing in their Turtle Recovery Theater.

Dates TBD  – Cayo Public Schools and Sacred Heart Junior College Campus. Hosts: Sacred Heart Junior College/ Environmental Assessment Class.

Dates TBD  – Independence Junior College Campus. Hosts: Independence Junior College. Natural Resource Management Class.

 

Hicatee Awareness Month FAQ

Hicatee Awareness Month is well underway with lots of exciting updates and opportunities to get involved. We’ve compiled a list of important links so that you don’t miss anything! 

‘Hope For Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle’

A 16-minute natural history documentary is now available to watch on YouTube. This film highlights the cultural significance of the hicatee in Belize, the environmental pressures propelling it toward extinction as well as the current work being done in Belize to save the species.

For a link to download the film, send an email request to: contact@bfreebz.org

Hicatee Toolkit 

The Toolkit was created to share various ways you can get involved in supporting Hicatee Awareness Month. Host a viewing party, take the pledge or fundraise to support the HCRC for a chance to adopt and name your own turtle. 

Hicatee Resources 

Hicatee Resources can be used to find facts about the turtles. Use them at your viewing party, in your classroom or just impress your friends with your new turtley awesome knowledge! 

Buy a T-Shirt from WildStuff!

Our friends at WildStuff Apparel have created a one of a kind National Hickatee Day T-Shirt. All proceeds will be donated to the HCRC!

Facebook Cover Images 

Check out our special Hicatee Facebook Profile Cover images. You can change your cover photo to show your support for Hicatee Awareness Month! 

Take the Hicatee Pledge

You can be a Hicatee Hero! Simply take the Hicatee Pledge and send us your #Shellfie! 

Meet Lauren Video

Lauren is a #HicateeHero and inspires all of us to continue working to #SaveTheHicatee.

Volunteer at the HCRC

We are looking for volunteers to support the ongoing work at the HCRC. Find out more by clicking on the link! 

What is the HCRC?

Find out more about the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center located at the BFREE Biological Field Station in southern Belize. 

Donate to the HCRC 

Here is your chance to adopt and name a turtle! We encourage you to get creative with fundraising or turn your viewing party into a fundraiser. With a $1,000 donation to the HCRC you can adopt and name a hicatee turtle. Your turtle’s chosen name will be engraved on a plaque at the HCRC. 

BFREE Summer Internship Reflection

BFREE Summer Internship Reflection

By: Jaren Serano

This summer I had the opportunity to be a part of something very special. I became immersed in a unique classroom with seemingly no boundaries. It all started on July 31st, 2017, this part of my internship I would like to refer to it simply as “the walk”.  I was excited about embarking on this journey, but little did I know what Mother Nature had in store for me prior to even reaching BFREE’s grounds.

From the Southern Highway, I hiked in some 8 miles. Now that may not seem like much but given that I did not pack light it seemed more like 80 miles.  While hiking I regretted several times packing so many stuff.  Although this internship took place during the summer, it was also the wet season, so saying the road was muddy would be an understatement. I had to trek through red clay mud that was at least knee deep.  After a couple hours, I eventually reached the BFREE research station looking as if I just ran the Boston Marathon.  The staff was very welcoming and helpful in getting me settled in. All in all, the walk in will forever be one of those memories that you might not appreciate in the moment but when looking back you will laugh and appreciate every footprint that was made in that red clay that day.

Turtle Conservation

The two week internship that I was blessed to be a part of consisted of daily caretaking of the hicatee turtles.  In the mornings, using a caliper, measurement of each hatchling’s carapace length was taken and recorded. Also, daily weight was taken and recorded using a digital gram scale. I was fascinated by the way how Tom Pop (HCRC Manager) showed such passion for his job. He treated each hatchling as if it was his own child. What I liked the most was in the afternoons when we would do some monitoring by the pond, it was like playing a game hide and go seek, only because the adult hicatees were the ones doing all the hiding! We were lucky if we got to see their heads popping up to the surface too quickly grab a breath of air.  When it came to feeding time I would go with Tom to the river banks where we would collect about two wheelbarrows filled with fig leaves.  The turtles would then greedily munch on the leaves which we gave them.

Jaren collects leaves to feed the hatchlings.

The hatchlings prefer much softer leaves such as the ones from young Cecropia trees. Two of the groups were offered feces (Yes, feces!) from the adults in order to inoculate them with the appropriate gut microflora. But before you get all grossed out – the presence of gut microflora is said to play an important role in the turtle’s ability to break down plant matter and absorb vital nutrients from their diet.  

I found this hands-on approach of learning very insightful because I got a chance to study close up the biological aspects of these Central American river turtles. I believe that just like humans, each hicatee has its own unique personality and special traits. They surely have a way of slowly working their way into your hearts!

While at BFREE I not only had the chance to work with the hicatees but I had the opportunity to pick Tom Pop’s mind about different wildlife around the area. BFREE is a nature lover’s playground. The diversity of flora and fauna is jaw-dropping; I soaked in every second of it all. I was very inquisitive and every day I wanted to know more because all of it was intriguing to me.  

Ranger for a Day

I also had a rare opportunity to be a ranger for the day with a fellow ranger, Mr. Sipriano Canti. This part of the internship could simply be described as “Rangers on the go!”  

Mr. Canti took Manuel Balona (another BFREE Intern ) and me to Observation Post 1 where we were educated about the purpose of the facility.  In short, it serves as a marker of the property boundary line for farmers and hunters using nearby land; this helps reduce illegal encroachment into the BFREE reserve. Along the boundary line road on the way to OP1, we noticed intensive farming of various crops such as corn, cilantro, and red kidney beans. To our surprise we also saw a huge portion of land set aside specifically for grazing and rearing of cattle, in close proximity to the reserve. A Forest Department established buffer zone separating the boundary line from the reserve helps prevent these types of agriculture from entering the reserve.

While at OP1 we took full advantage of what Mr. Canti would refer to as “the ranger lifestyle.” There we did different patrols all hours of the day and night. It was an experience that I will forever cherish.

Manuel Balona (left) and Jaren Serano (right), assist HCRC Manager, Tom Pop (center) at the HCRC.

All in all, the experience will definitely be one for the books.   Never in a million years did I believe I would be given such an opportunity to be a part of something this moving. It was great to be around people who share mutual feelings when it comes to conservation making two weeks go by too quickly. The rainforest is truly our classroom.

I will continue sharing the knowledge learned at BFREE among peers and anyone who is willing to lend an ear. I believe this internship brought me steps closer to my ultimate goal of someday becoming a zoologist and helping with various conservation efforts in my country.