Posts

Re-wilding Hicatee into Belize’s rivers

BFREE, with the help of our dedicated partners, implemented three (3) separate Hicatee turtle release events for 2022. The first release event was conducted on the 1st of April 2022 when fifty-five (55) juveniles and hatchlings were released into a river in north central Belize. The release was done by BFREE’s Tom Pop and Jonathan Dubon with the support of community members.

The second release event was conducted on the 2nd of June 2022 when forty five (45) turtles were released into another river system also in north central Belize. The release was conducted by Belize Turtle Ecology Lab (BTEL) and students from Dr. Day Ligon’s Turtle Ecology Lab at Missouri State University, USA.

The third release event was conducted on the 17th of June 2022 and was the biggest release to date. A total of one hundred and twenty-four (124) juveniles were released into the wild in central Belize. BFREE staff, Dr. Ed Boles, Tom Pop, Jonathan Dubon and Barney Hall, were responsible for transporting and releasing all of the turtles. The location was chosen based on two factors. The first factor was that many of the adults that parented the juveniles were from this watershed, and previous data collected confirmed that this population has been heavily depleted. The second factor is related to research. This specific location allows for BFREE and its partner institutions to track and conduct long-term monitoring, and the habitat is healthy and provides the natural requirements needed for the population to rebound over time.

Jacob Marlin, BFREE’ Executive Director, states, “The reintroductions or rewilding of captive bred Hicatee from the HCRC at BFREE is a critical part of a much broader effort to prevent the extinction of this critically endangered species of turtle. By monitoring the survivorship and overall health of released turtles, and comparing the results to wild turtles of similar age and size, we can better understand the efficacy of and probability that our program can help re-establish and augment populations that have been severely depleted where they once were abundant.”

Over the last three years, with the support of our partners, BFREE has successfully released 415 captive born and raised Hicatee turtles in five different water bodies in central Belize. These turtles have been reintroduced into two watersheds where their populations have been severely depleted. Our reintroduction programs include both short and long-term monitoring, which will help us determine the success of this project. Several of the releases included the participation of community members to further expand our outreach efforts. 

As always, a special thanks to our partner, Turtle Survival Alliance, for their consistent and faithful support of Hicatee conservation in Belize.

Meet Robynn Phillips

BFREE’s New Engagement and Communications Coordinator

Hi! My name is Robynn Phillips. I’ve recently joined BFREE on a contract basis as the Engagement and Communications Coordinator. My role is primarily to manage activities associated with BFREE’s annual awareness campaign for Hicatee Awareness Month.

I am from one of the coastal communities in Southern Belize about 20 miles from BFREE called Independence Village. I am an aspiring conservationist. For me, it all started while taking boat rides and eating fresh sea food. I remember being a young girl eating fry jacks on the beach in Placencia Village, which was only a fifteen-minute water taxi ride away. The local tourism industry was higher over in Placencia which meant more job opportunities and most people would travel over for work daily: my mom was one of them. My two siblings and I would head over on holidays to spend the day on the beach as we waited for our mom to clock off.

My passion and caring for the natural environment stemmed from what I saw then: the crystal, clear water, blue sky, and the breathtaking beach. As I got older and furthered my education, I truly understood that such beauty needed protection – and it would take a lot of work and knowledge to protect it. Since then, I have contributed to keeping that same area pristine through beach clean ups. During my education, I got to see where the very fresh seafood my mom cooked came from and encouraged fisher folks to fish sustainably through education and outreach activities.

My associate’s degree is from Independence Junior College (IJC) and my bachelor’s degree is from the University of Belize (UB), both in Natural Resource Management. Through my educational journey, I had the chance to travel my beautiful country to explore its diverse flora and fauna. Experiencing such beauty made me grow tremendous appreciation for the natural environment in all its forms; terrestrial, marine and aquatic.

After completing my studies, I entered the work world in the field that I studied for and a scenery that was very much familiar. As I ventured off to start my career focusing on marine resource protection, I had the chance to oversee the day-to-day operations of two important marine protected areas in Southern Belize, off the coast of Placencia Village; Laughing Bird Caye National Park (LBCNP) and Gladden Spit and Silk Cayes Marine Reserve (GSSCMR).

For over five years, I have been working and volunteering within the conservation sector, focusing on the marine environment. So far, it’s been extremely rewarding as I have learned a lot, seen some of Belize’s natural treasures and worked with many inspirational people. I am grateful for the all the dedicated and hardworking people who paved the way and made it possible for those who came after them. I aspire to be just as or even more influential with hopes to continue to protect and bring awareness to our unique natural resources.

I first visited BFREE back in 2015 and 2016 as a student for two separate courses during my time at IJC. During both trips, I was able to learn about small mammal traps that were used for research, ongoing bird research, the cocoa planation and the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC).  At the HCRC, my classmates and I had the chance to see the Hicatees, learn about the bi-annual health assessments and about how these data collected are used for decision-making and to strengthened overall management of the facility and the species.

Now, I am excited for the opportunity to be a part of the movement to protect and re-wild the critically endangered Hicatee Turtles. I look forward to learning and effectively contributing to BFREE’s continuous conservation efforts. The efforts to save a dying species are beyond commendable. Here’s to being a part of such an awesome team!!

Team Hicatee – Ed Boles, Jacob Marlin, Barney Hall and Robynn Phillips (back row), Heather Barrett and Thomas Pop (front row)

Third Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop

Developing a Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, in Belize

Co-hosted by Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education (BFREE), the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), Zoo New England (ZNE), and the Belize Fisheries Department, the Third Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop was held online via a Zoom webinar on May 17, 2022. The purpose of the Hicatee Conservation Workshop was to bring together stakeholders to begin to develop a Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle in Belize. Organized by Dr. Ed Boles, BFREE Dermatemys Program Coordinator, with the support of BFREE staff, the workshop was facilitated by Ms. Yvette Alonzo with technical assistance from Mr. David Hedrick of TSA. The workshop was attended by 38 professionals supporting Dermatemys mawii research, conservation, and outreach, including key Government officials from the Belize Fisheries Department.

Hicatee Conservation Forum Breakout Groups

Participants divided into five breakout groups in previously identified focal areas of: Laws, Regulations and Enforcement; Community Outreach, Education and Social Research; Captive Management and Reintroductions; Biological and Ecological Research, and in situ Conservation. The groups were tasked with discussing background, ideas, and concerns for 59 proposed actions divided among seven conservation goals. Further they were responsible for modifying action descriptions, eliminating irrelevant actions, and adding actions the group identified as appropriate.

Hicatee Conservation Forum Participants

Breakout Groups Members of the Breakout groups 
Laws, Regulations, and EnforcementFelicia Cruz, Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department – Chair, Jacob Marlin, Executive Director, BFREE – (first half), Gilberto Young, Inland Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries Department, Peter Paul van Dijk, Red List Authority Coordinator of the IUCN/SSC Tortoise and Freshwater Turtle Specialist Group, Thomas Pop, Hicatee Conservation & Research Center Manager – (first half), Debora Olivares (note taker)
Community Outreach, Education, and Social ResearchHeather Barrett, Deputy Director, BFREE – Chair, Conway Young, Administrative Officer, Community Baboon Sanctuary, Jonathan Dubon, Wildlife Fellow, BFREE, Paul Evans, Outreach Officer, University of Florida, Emilie Wilder, Field Conservation Officer, Zoo New England
Captive Management and ReintroductionsBryan Windmiller, Director of Field Conservation, Zoo New England– Chair, Elliott Jacobson, Veterinarian, University of Florida, Brian Horne, Wildlife Conservation Society, Calvin Gonzalez, Outreach Officer, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Isabelle Paquet Durand, Veterinarian, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Dudley Hendy, Fisher, Jacob Marlin (second half), Thomas Pop (second half), Julie Lester (note taker)
Biological and Ecological ResearchDay Ligon, Professor of Biology, Missouri State University – Chair, Boris Arevalo, Wildlife Conservation Society, Donald McKnight, Turtle Biologist, La Trobe University, Thomas Rainwater, Research Scientist, Clemson University, Venetia Briggs-Gonzalez, Director, Lamanai Field Research Center, Manual Gallardo, Olmaca University, Guichard Romero, D. mawii researcher in Mexico, Vanessa Kilburn, Director, TREES  Eduardo Reyes Grajales, D. mawii researcher in Mexico, Jessica Schmidt (note-taker)
In situ ConservationAndrew Walde, COO, Turtle Survival Alliance – Chair, Elma Kay, Managing Director, Belize Maya Forest Trust, Tim Gregory, TSA and BFREE Board Member, Yamira Novelo, Technical Assistant, Wildlife Conservation Society, Denise Thompson, Per Course Faculty, Missouri State University, Ed Boles, Dermatemys Program Coordinator, BFREE  
*Attendees who were not able to participate in Breakout Groups were Rick Hudson, Turtle Survival Alliance and Tyler Sanville, BFREE

Workshop Results

Results of the workshop yielded a 33-page transcript capturing input from participants, which will serve as a supporting document for the compilation of the first draft of the “Conservation, Management, and Action Plan for the Central American River Turtle, Dermatemys mawii, in Belize”. A follow-up workshop to review the draft will take place later in 2022. Completion of an integrated and inclusive plan for Belize, guided by research and decades of traditional fisher experience, is the goal. If successful in this country, the content will be exported as guidance for similar plans in Mexico and Guatemala.

The overall theme of this very successful workshop can be described as taking actions to increase research, conservation, and restoration initiatives that are inclusive of local communities and the promotion of community-based management through the full D. mawii range. Farmers, fishers, youths, and all concerned citizens are recognized as vital partners in ensuring the survival of D. mawii into the future – a theme that shall be tightly woven into the resulting conservation, management and action plan.

Freshwater and Terrestrial Turtle Survey – Year Two

by Eric Munscher

This year, we, members of the TSA – North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG), had a team of ten people fly down to trap turtles on the BFREE private reserve in southern Belize. If you have never been to Belize, I highly recommend it. The country is beautiful and the people are wonderful. Working with the people at the BFREE Field Station on this project has been so much fun.

This is our second year of a planned 10-year survey of freshwater and terrestrial turtle species on BFREE’s 1,153-acre private reserve. Last year, we identified several species range extensions and caught seven of nine freshwater and terrestrial species known in Belize. The survey is valuable information not only for the TSA, NAFTRG and BFREE, but for the country of Belize where very little data exists on many of these species.

During the first 12 days we caught 221 turtles representing 8 species. The holy grail capture of this trip was finding our first Narrow Bridged Musk Turtle (Claudius angustatus), which is a really cool and understudied species of musk turtle. One that is not known from southern Belize. We ended up catching a dozen including some juveniles and a hatchling indicating a viable breeding population.

Our team also helped kick off a new grad student project for Collin McAvinchey who will be staying in Belize for most of the month of July tracking Tabasco Mud turtles (Kinosternon acutum). Collin’s project started off slow due to weather conditions. Finding adult Tabasco Mud Turtles was more of a challenge this year than last year. Still the data he is gathering is surprising and amazing. As of yesterday, he is now tracking ten of these turtles all over the rainforest. For a mud turtle they seem to act more like box turtles….

I am really looking forward to generating our first manuscripts from this work and seeing Collin’s thesis come together. I’m also excited to return next year! A valuable and exciting part of this program was the opportunity for citizen scientists to contribute to a long-term dataset. There will be opportunities next year for additional participation.

Thanks to an amazing crew Arron Tuggle, Madeleine Morrison, Nicole Salvatico, Stephen Ross , Tabitha Barbree Hootman, Luke Pearson, Becca Rádio Cozad, Georgia Knauss, and Collin McAvinchey. Also to the BFREE team: Thomas Pop, Barney Hall, Jonathan Dubon, Heather Barrett, Jacob Marlin, and many others, thank you for all of your efforts and hospitality and making this project such an early success! Finally, thanks to Tyler Sanville for supporting our travel logistics and to Eddie Pop who kept us well fed and always ready to get back out into the field.

To read more about last year’s survey, read Under the Shade They Flourish: Beginning A 10-Year Study in Belize published by SWCA Environmental Consultants and TSA-NAFTRG Survey at BFREE.

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