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BFREE Receives Porras Conservation Award

  It’s not often international wildlife conferences hold their annual meeting so close to home. Fortunately, the International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) chose Belize City as the base for their 42nd gathering and we are so glad they did!    The International Herpetological Symposium (IHS) provides a forum for the dissemination of information and research pertaining to the natural history, conservation biology, captive management, and propagation of amphibians and reptiles. The symposium provided a valuable opportunity to showcase the herpetological conservation taking place in Belize.    BFREE Staff, Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett, Tom Pop, and Jaren Serano, attended the conference and presented on various topics. Dr. Marisa Tellez of the Crocodile Research Coalition also provided local perspective on conservation in Belize and several student presenters from southern Belize’s Independence Junior College highlighted research questions and projects pertaining to reptiles and amphibians in the country.    At the close of the conference, BFREE was given the Porras Conservation Award. This award is granted in recognition of lifelong achievements in and contributions to field biology. The award is presented to a speaker (or – in this case – an organization) who has demonstrated that their work represents exceptional accomplishments in the field that benefit herpetological conservation. We are pleased and honored to have our work recognized in this way.  

BFREE PRESENTATIONS AT THE 42nd IHS SYMPOSIUM

Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director, provided the keynote presentation. “The Herpetofauna of Belize, 30 Years of Observations, Myths, Facts and Hot Spots”  

Heather Barrett, BFREE Deputy Director, presented “Awareness Messaging as a Tool for the survival of the world’s most endangered turtle family”  

Jaren Serano, BFREE Science and Education Fellow, presented “Turtle or Fish? Investigations into captive management and reproductive biology of the Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys Mawaii), at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center, Belize”    

Team Hicatee Competes in La Ruta Maya

By Jaren Serano

The La Ruta Maya 2019 Belize River Challenge is considered one of the most gruesome races in Belizean history and it is the longest canoe race in Central America:  a four- day event covering over 180 miles of Belizean river. Paddlers from all corners of the country and internationally converge at the banks of the Macal River – the starting point of the race.

La Ruta Maya means “The route of the Mayans.”  This route was used by the ancient Maya for quicker access to the coast and, in the mid-1600s, by loggers to move logwood to the coast. On March 9, 1998, the La Ruta Maya was conceptualized by Richard Harrison of Big-H Enterprises when he launched a new brand of purified water. Since then, the race has evolved into an annual competition that brings together people from all over Belize and also raises consciousness about various environmental issues happening around the country.

Tom Pop, Scottie Trevino, and Rony Jimenez paddled for Team Hicatee during La Ruta Maya

This year BFREE decided to join in the action and partnered with Belize Wildlife Referral Clinic (BWRC) to create Team Hicatee. The primary reason for our participation was because this four-day river event is a major time when Hicatee turtles are harvested heavily for human consumption. We believed having a race canoe titled simply “Save the Hicatee” in this historic race  would be a strong message and a great platform to raise awareness for this critically-endangered species.

Team Hicatee consisted of three paddlers: Scottie Trevino, Rony Jimenez, and Thomas Pop of BFREE. Although this was Team Hicatee’s first time to compete together, they placed 31st overall and 3rd in their respective category (Mixed Category- one female and two males).

When asked about the race, Tom had the following to say: “It was tough and challenging but a very fun race. I did it for conservation to raise awareness for the Hicatee. If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t travel that 180 miles.”

Team Hicatee placed 31st overall and 3rd in their category.

“This race is important because it helps locals to be more aware of the different conservation  issues around the country and it shines a light upon these issues.”

“Team Hicatee gave a challenge even though it was our first time, at the end of the day we were competitive. And I felt that my goal of raising awareness was completed because at the start of the race people didn’t even recognize us as competitors. But as the four days progressed we started hearing on-lookers yelling from the banks of the river “Go Hicatee Go!”  and that made me feel even more happy. They didn’t have to know who I was but the fact that they recognize our canoe and acknowledge that we were Team Hicatee made me feel like a proud conservationist.”

Back of Team Hicatee t-shirts  

We at BFREE would like to extend a special thanks to Derric Chan of Friends of Conservation and Development (FCD), and Justin Ford, Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC), for their coordination and support of Team Hicatee.

Spring ’19 Hicatee Health Assessments

 

Team Hicatee Spring 2019

During the early March Hicatee Health Assessment, a total of 214 turtles were assessed at the Hicatee conservation and Research Center (HCRC). The primary purpose of the spring health assessment was to perform a basic exam of the overall health of the captive population at the HCRC. Because oviposition takes place between the months of November and February, it was also relevant to check for the presence of additional eggs. 

Prior to the Health Assessments beginning, a small team of volunteers arrived to help prepare the site. The team cleaned hatchling tanks and moved the 140 hatchlings from the 2018 cohort from the soft release cage where they had been housed since December. They were placed there during the coldest months of the year because the water in Pond A maintained higher temperatures than in the smaller, above-ground tanks where they live during warmer months. Hatchlings were counted and given a quick check before being transferred back to the tanks where they acclimated until their assessments a few days later.

The three day processing started off with adult turtles being netted from the pond A, then placed in their respective holding area awaiting assessment. On day two, Adult turtles from Pond B was then netted and assessed. Day 3 commenced with a scanning of both pond perimeters for nest cavities which showed signs of eggs. Followed by the assessment of hatchlings from the 2018 cohort. Results from this year’s spring health check are still under analysis.

Cayle Pearson and Sarah Cristoff of Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens isolated several adult male turtles to collect additional data that will help them troubleshoot issues relating to the Hicatee turtles held in captivity at their facility.

We were grateful to receive support and assistance from the following participants in our spring health check: Dr. Isabelle Paquet Durand, Veterinarian at Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic, Cayle Pearson, Supervisor of Herpetology, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, and Sarah Cristoff, Veterinary Technician, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, Heather Alford, Missy Belmer, Laurie Haven, Doris Dimmitt, Rodney Dimmitt, Tim Gregory, and Emily Gregory. We would like to express our gratitude to Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for their financial support for this spring’s Hicatee health assessment.

The Hicatee Conservation & Research Center is a joint protect between BFREE and Turtle Survival Alliance. The bi-annual Assessments help ensure the health of captive animals at the HCRC and also contribute to our ongoing research of these critically endangered turtles. #savethehicatee

 

Professional Development for HCRC Staff

Tom had the opportunity to help with not only turtles, but also iguanas and crocodiles. 

Thomas Pop, Manager of the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center, visited the Cayo District for one week in September to receive training at the Belize Wildlife & Referral Clinic (BWRC).

BWRC offers free training for governmental and non-governmental partners in wildlife conservation issues, rescue and rehabilitation, wildlife husbandry, emergency response and more. Depending on needs they include some clinical applications as well as basic laboratory methods (with a special focus on parasitology, and fecal analysis which is so often needed in any captive or rescued wildlife species.)

The emphasis of Tom’s training was on microscopy and parasitology

While at the BWRC, Tom was exposed to veterinary techniques that will prove very useful for his work with Hicatee turtles. Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand described Tom as “an enthusiastic learner, with an interest in parasites!”

We are grateful to Dr. Isabelle and her team at the BWRC for hosting Tom and look forward to future opportunities and exchanges. We are also grateful to our partner, the Turtle Survival Alliance, for subsidizing travel costs.

Celebrating Belize’s National Treasure – the Hicatee Turtle

This October, BFREE, Turtle Survival Alliance, and our partners are observing the second annual Hicatee Awareness Month. Throughout the month, activities and events will celebrate the beloved Central American River Turtle – locally known as the Hicatee. This year’s message encourages national pride of this rare and unique species by seeking to establish the Hicatee as the national reptile of Belize.

As stated in the Belize 2016-2020 National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), “Belize harbors a total of 118 globally threatened species (9 critically endangered, 32 endangered and 77 Vulnerable) and a further 62 near threatened / of least concern (IUCN, 2016). Of these, the critically endangered Central American river turtle (“hicatee”) is considered at highest risk of local extinction.”  

The Hicatee’s main predator is man. In effect, this turtle is being eaten to extinction across its limited range. Although it is believed that the Hicatee still exists in very small populations in northern Guatemala and southern Mexico, its stronghold is in Belize. Therefore, the future of the species depends on the actions of those who live in and visit Belize.

As the country’s national reptile, the Hicatee’s public status would be elevated and the stage would be set for national pride of this rare and unique species. Just as the Tapir and Toucan are revered and protected due to their status as the national animal and national bird, the Hicatee would be revered and protected if recognized as the national reptile.

To help prepare teachers for October, BFREE distributed educational packets to 100 preschools and primary schools in Cayo and Belize Districts. These are areas in which Hicatee have historically been found. Packets included classroom resources like activity pages and fact sheets about the Hicatee and other valuable and endangered wildlife found in Belize. “Herbert the Hickatee,” a book written by Ms. Gianni Martinez, a teacher at St. Mary’s School in Belize City, is featured in the packets. Also included is a national competition for students to design the 2019 Hicatee Awareness Month poster.

Camya Robinson, Research Assistant, and Jaren Serano, BFREE Science & Education Fellow and Author of “I am a Hicatee Hero,” posing with hatchlings 

On October 1st, BFREE emailed packets to principals of every school with a valid email address (540+) in Belize. These packet materials are available online for download at https://www.bfreebz.org. Special additions to the online packet include a poem for kids “I am a Hicatee Hero,” by Mr. Jaren Serano, alumnus of Sacred Heart Junior College in Cayo, and the 1 ½ minute video trailer for “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle,” created by wildlife filmmakers, Richard and Carol Foster, of Belmopan.

With the second Hicatee Awareness Month, we are encouraging our Belizean and global partners to unite to help save this species from extinction. By making this our national reptile, future generations and leaders will recognize the important cultural and historic value of the Hicatee turtle – Belize’s National Treasure.

The hicatee is disappearing, but together we can save it.

 

Bi-annual Hicatee Health Assessments at BFREE

Dr. Isabelle and Dr. Jacobson do a full health review of a one-year-old Hicatee turtle

A team of veterinarians, zookeepers, researchers, and wildlife enthusiasts traveled to BFREE to perform health assessments on the turtles at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center.  Our fall health check occurs when females likely have eggs, which allows the team to perform ultrasounds and determine the reproductive status of the turtles.

 

 

 

Health Assessment Team: Back row (L to R) Elliott Jacobson, Cayle Pearson, Isabelle Paquet-Durand, Rich Zerilli, Stephanie Verhulst, Nichole Bishop. Front row – Heather Barrett, Saul Bauer, Tom Pop, Jacob Marlin, and Jaren Serano (not pictured Eric Anderson and Gianni Martinez)

Day 1 Examinations were performed on the 2017 and 2018 hatchlings. Under the guidance of Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, a veterinarian at Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic (BWRC), and Dr. Elliott Jacobson, professor and veterinarian emeritus at University of Florida, each juvenile was weighed, measured and given a thorough exam which included careful assessment of warts and abscesses identified during previous examinations. Overall, turtles showed positive growth rates and reduction in skin problems.

The 2018 hatchlings were examined next – the veterinarians reviewed each of the 169 turtles which had already been weighed and measured on the 4th of September. Hatchlings also showed positive growth and good overall health.

Day 2 Adults and sub-adults were netted from Pond B in the morning and Pond A in the afternoon. Forty-four animals were measured and weighed and given general health examinations. All breeding sized females also underwent ultrasounds to determine the presence of follicles and eggs. One of the adult turtles eluded the nets, as did all the captive-born three and four-year-olds.

Gianni Martinez, teacher at St. Mary’s School in Belize City and author of “Herbert the Hickatee” joined the assessments on Day 2. 

Day 3 –  Because Dr. Jacobson was on-site to offer professional development training to HCRC staff, he presented a talk on “Zoological Medicine,” to the group.  Other lectures he gave throughout the weekend included “Animal Husbandry,” and “Reptile Collecting and Field Methods.”

Data collected during these assessments will add to the ongoing data set being constructed by staff of the HCRC.

Additional photos of the Fall Health Check can be found here: Flickr page.

Thanks to the Turtle Survival Alliance for providing funding for the Fall Health Assessments, Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens for loaning the portable ultrasound machine, and Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for providing turtle diet for continued feeding experimentation on the hatchlings. Additionally, thanks the team who contributed time, energy and knowledge to this fall’s assessment: Dr. Isabelle Paquet-Durand, Dr. Elliott Jacobson, Thomas Pop, Jaren Serano, Nichole Bishop, Saul Bauer, Cayle Pearson, Stephanie Verhulst, Gianni Martinez, Richard Zerilli, Eric Anderson, Jacob Marlin, Heather Barrett and Hyla Marlin.

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. 

 

 

International Turtle Conservation and Biology Symposium

The Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) was featured in the 15th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Tortoises and Fresh Water Turtles.  The meeting, which is the largest gathering of non-marine turtle biologists in the world, was held in historic Charleston, South Carolina and attended by over 300 participants.

Heather Barrett and Peter Paul van Dijk at the Turtle Survival Center. Peter Paul was honored during the symposium with the John L. Behler Turtle Conservation Award

Turtle Survival Center Field Trip

Field trip participants visited enclosures throughout the Turtle Survival Center

The pre-symposium field trip to the new Turtle Survival Center was a highlight. The TSC is owned by Turtle Survival Alliance and represents a new and important direction for the organization. The Center is a captive setting for turtle and tortoise species that are critically endangered and that face an uncertain future in the wild. The TSC is dedicated to building up robust captive populations of these species. On Sunday, hundreds of participants were bused from the conference hotel to the TSC in order to tour the Center’s many facilities including the various complexes, the incubation room, and areas that are still being developed.

Hicatee Presentations

Symposium activities officially began on Monday. BFREE staff were honored to be invited to present the latest news and outcomes at the HCRC.  As part of the Captive Husbandry session, Jacob Marlin detailed the development of the HCRC as a facility and described what has been learned on site about the reproductive biology of the Hicatee.

Heather Barrett presented “Country-wide Efforts to Promote the Conservation of the Critically Endangered Central American River Turtle (Dermatemys mawii) in Belize, Central America.” She outlined the recent history of conservation outreach for the hicatee including the formation of the Hicatee Conservation Network and the

Each TSA project country is featured in a poster at the Turtle Survival Center

production of a documentary film. Heather’s session was followed by a special film screening of “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle.” This was the first time the new documentary by Richard and Carol Foster was shown publicly. “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee,” was well received by the audience who was eager to view rare underwater footage of the turtle and appreciated the breadth of information covered in the short film.

In addition to BFREE staff presenting HCRC findings at the conference, Nichole Bishop, Ph.D. Candidate from the University of Florida, described her research related to the 2017 hicatee hatchlings in her talk, “Is Coprophagy an Important Management Decision for the Captive Breeding of Herbivorous Turtles?”

The symposium offered many opportunities for conversations and brainstorming on issues relating to the hicatee and other endangered turtles and tortoises. The symposium was an uplifting and inspirational event and BFREE staff left feeling impressed by the countless individuals dedicating their lives to the conservation of turtle species around the globe.