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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)

Genetic Analysis of Dermatemys mawii

BFREE’s second Hicatee (Central American River Turtle) Health Assessment of 2022 took place on July 5 and 6. These dates were much earlier than normal because there was an opportunity to conduct a much-needed genetics study. Dr. Natalia Gallego Garcia traveled from Colombia to collect the samples that will be used for genetic analysis. With the help of Luke Pearson and Isabelle Paquet-Durand, she was able to collect 44 samples from the 46 adult captive turtles in residence at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC). Collected samples will be stored at BFREE until export permits are received. The study is critical to the on-going work at the HCRC and for the Hicatee program in Belize.

Improving Captive Management

Using this genetics study, Natalia will implement a paternity analysis. Data collected will be used to assign all the clutches hatched at the HCRC to a mother (dame) and to potential fathers (sires). We will also gain an understanding of the reproductive output of the species by determining which captive adults are reproducing and how often. Results will be used to improve captive management protocols.

Supplementing Wild Populations

Further, the study will help us determine the genetic composition of wild populations and understand how to supplement those populations with captive animals if necessary. Dr. Gallego-Garcia will conduct a population genetics analysis that includes wild samples in Belize as well as Mexico and Guatemala.

In addition to the genetics study, morphometric data was collected on all adults as well as the majority of juveniles. Dr. Isabelle and her assistant performed ultrasounds on all adult females and identified follicles already forming in many of the turtles.

Finally, because a survey team from Turtle Survival Alliance’s North American Freshwater Turtle Research Group (NAFTRG) was onsite, Natalia was able to collect samples from a subset of those turtles as well.

Hicatee Health Assessment participants

UCLA Shaffer Lab – Natalia Gallego-Garcia; TSA- NAFTRG turtle survey team members – Eric Munscher, Collin McAvinchey, Becca Cozad, Tabitha Hootman, Arron Tuggle, Georgia Knaus, Maddie Morrison, Nichole Salvatico, Luke Pearson, and Stephen Ross; TSA and BFREE Board Member – Tim Gregory; Belize Wildlife and Referral Clinic – Isabelle Paquet Durand; BFREE – Tom Pop, Jonathan Dubon, Barney Hall, Jacob Marlin and Heather Barrett

Natalia Gallego García received her Ph.D in 2019 at Universidad de los Andes. For her dissertation, she used landscape genomics to determine mechanisms affecting the functional connectivity in two endangered and endemic turtles in Colombia. She conducts work through UCLA’s Shaffer Lab as a postdoc, working on a range wide landscape genomic analysis of the red-footed tortoise across South America, with a particular emphasis on Colombian population differentiation.

Feste Film Crew Visits the HCRC

In collaboration with the European Nature Trust, The Feste Film crew has been traveling throughout Belize, documenting the country’s many important conservation initiatives since January.


This week, the crew stopped at BFREE to learn about our work to preserve the critically endangered Central American River Turtle, locally known as the Hicatee. They are interviewing BFREE staff at our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center (HCRC) and learning about our captive breeding program and rewilding goals for this critically endangered species.

The Feste Film crew beats the heat with BFREE bandanas!

A New Species of Coccidia Described in D. mawii

We are pleased to announce a recent publication in the Journal of Parasitology that describes a new coccidian protozoan, Eimeria grayi. Named after the biologist who described Dermatemys mawii, this is the first description of a coccidian in the Central American River Turtle. The discovery of this bacteria advances our understanding of this under-studied and monotypic species of turtle. This coccidian was identified in captive turtles at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at the BFREE Field Station in southern Belize. We do not know if this coccidian exists in wild turtles. 

The publication was a team effort and we are especially grateful to Dr. Elliott Jacobson who took the lead on this important effort.

Dry Season at the Turtle Ponds by Jonathan Dubon

HCRC Manager, Tom Pop and Wildlife Fellow, Jonathan Dubon hold eggs they collected from the Hicatee ponds.

As the dry season rapidly approaches, we at the HCRC have a lot of work on our hands to keep our program running at its best. We have several mini-projects currently being conducted, such as improving the husbandry, daily maintenance of the site, taking care of about 400 critically endangered Hicatee turtles, and managing 100+ eggs (so far this year)!  We also spend our time brainstorming ways to improve water quality to help our turtles live healthy and happy. One of the ideas we are implementing is improving solar energy to pump more freshwater into the ponds by building a solar tower. We have dug and constructed the foundation for the tower, and in the coming weeks, we plan to finish constructing the braces and the tower itself.  


Nesting Season

A clutch of eggs collected during the 2020-2021 nesting season.

The nesting season began in early November 2020, and we have since collected 12 clutches of eggs or 108 total eggs. We recently discovered the 13th clutch; however, we will not collect it yet and are conducting a natural hatchment experiment on it first. We are unsure how many eggs are in this clutch, but I estimate anywhere between 7-11. Tom Pop, HCRC Manager, and I have also found three old clutches of eggs from last season which may not have been fertile. Adding up every clutch, our grand total is nearly 1,000 Hicatee eggs laid at our breeding facility!

Wildlife at the Turtle Ponds

Working at the HCRC in the middle of the jungle has its many benefits. Not only do we get to see cute and adorable Hicatee turtles every day (yes, we all think they are adorable), we also see other exciting wildlife.  Most common are green iguanas, pond sliders, the great curassow, crested guan, cat-eyed snakes, and speckled racers. Tom and I were recently pruning the fig trees around the turtle ponds when we heard some familiar birds in the trees not too far from us. We listened as we continued our work, and the calls were getting louder and louder. As we looked up, we saw a huge flock of beautiful and magnificent Scarlet macaws that had flown directly above us. We immediately looked up and started counting at least 20 macaws perched above the turtle ponds, so close we could see them clearly, even without binoculars. If you thought it couldn’t get better, it does! A few months ago, I witnessed my first wild Harpy eagle perched on a tree in the cacao farm just a few meters from the HCRC.  An amazing lifer, right!? 


It will be a full year since I started my fellowship position at BFREE this June. I’ve enjoyed witnessing all of the seasonal changes, the wildlife, and the opportunity to learn more about the Hicatee turtle. 

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.