By Jaren Serano
During my first stint at BFREE, I had the privilege of witnessing the positive impact that organizations like this have on land conservation, wildlife protection, and the conservation efforts among the local communities in Belize. When I joined as BFREE’s first Science and Education Fellow in 2017, I was immediately drawn to their ongoing Dermatemys mawii (Hicatee) captive breeding program. At the time, this was still a relatively new collaboration between BFREE and the Turtle Survival Alliance, and we were experiencing our second year of hatching success.
My desire to contribute to the conservation efforts and help safeguard this species motivated me to be a part of this program. Through my active engagement and with guidance provided by Thomas Pop, the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center Manager, I acquired priceless firsthand experience working closely with the Hicatee turtles, both in controlled environments and their natural habitats. At the captive breeding facility, my daily responsibilities involved caring for and handling the turtles, which allowed me to develop skills in husbandry and effective management practices.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job was assisting in the care and rearing of hatchlings and juveniles. Being responsible for the well-being of over a hundred critically endangered Hicatee hatchlings instilled in me a profound sense of purpose and pride. Additionally, as a fellow, I had the privilege to gain insights from and work alongside various biologists, including Dr. Donald McKnight, Dr. Day Ligon and Denise Thompson. Together, we conducted population assessments for the Hicatee turtle within river systems in Belize. This not only enabled me to observe wild Hicatees for the first time but also provided a platform to engage with local anglers and raise awareness about the species’ conservation status.
After graduating from the fellowship program at BFREE, I traveled to the states to complete my bachelor’s degree in Sustainability at Jacksonville University (JU) under the advisement of Dr. John Enz. Being part of this program gave me a deeper understanding of the requirements needed to make a significant impact in today’s conservation field. Additionally, it offered me the opportunity to connect with a diverse group of like-minded individuals, some of whom have since become lifelong friends.
Following my accomplishments at JU, I then applied to and was accepted at the University of Florida (UF) for my master’s degree program. Throughout this period, I collaborated closely with Dr. Ray Carthy, Dr. Nichole Bishop, and Dr. Todd Osborne. My main focus was directed towards researching aspects of the reproductive ecology of loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta). While at UF, I worked as a graduate research assistant at the Florida Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, which allowed me to further develop as a student of nature and has provided me with a solid scientific foundation. This dynamic environment has sharpened my analytical thinking, problem-solving abilities, and aptitude for effectively communicating scientific information and wildlife management programs to my peers in the sciences as well as the general public.
Now, as the Dermatemys Program Coordinator, I am incredibly enthusiastic about my new role. I am confident that my educational background, ever-expanding knowledge of the Hicatee turtle, and experience in wildlife conservation management will allow me to make immediate contributions to the ongoing efforts to prevent further decline of this critically endangered species.
Amidst a world challenged by increasing anthropogenic pressures, Belize is blessed to still possess approximately 55 percent of forest cover and a vibrant array of wildlife. As a proud Belizean, I derive immense satisfaction from actively participating in conservation initiatives within our country, striving to maintain the integrity of our diverse ecosystems. Over time, I have developed a profound respect for the ecological and cultural importance of D. mawii in Belize. This has fueled my determination to assist in implementing effective management practices that can strengthen this unique relationship and collaborate towards the restoration of declining and extirpated populations of D. mawii throughout its entire range.
My goal is 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, I aim to actively 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. I firmly believe that by working together and actively collaborating, we can save the Hicatee from the brink of extinction.
Special Thanks to the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) for their continuous support of the BFREE Science and Education Fellowship Program. Also, thanks to TSA and the Disney Conservation Fund for their financial support to launch the position of Dermatemys Program Coordinator.