2nd Hicatee Conservation Workshop and Forum, Education Committee Advancing Education and Long-term Monitoring at BFREE, Student Spotlight, and more.

Workshop Designs Strategy to Safeguard Long-term Survival of the Hicatee Turtle in Belize

“Progress toward long-term conservation of Dermatemys mawii, hicatee turtle” 

Participants traveled from Guatemala, Brazil, the US and from within Belize to attend the Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop 


On February 25 and 26, BFREE in collaboration with Turtle Survival Alliance, the Belize Fisheries Department, and Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens hosted the 2nd Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop at the BFREE Field Station. Unique to Belize, Guatemala and Mexico, the Central American River Turtle, locally known as the hicatee (Dermatemys mawii), has been driven to the edge of extinction throughout its range by illegal harvesting and overconsumption. To address this risk, the forum brought together stakeholders from the scientific community, government officials, NGOs and other stakeholders to share findings and information on the status of the Hicatee turtle, present ongoing conservation initiatives, and map out future efforts to conserve this critically endangered river turtle. Twenty-seven participants traveled from Guatemala, Brazil, the USA and from within Belize to attend the two-day workshop.

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Early arrivals to the Hicatee Conservation Forum and Workshop pose in front of a sign informing Belizeans of the campaign to save the hicatee.
Workshop participants compare young hicatee tail size as a possible way to determine whether they are male or female.
BFREE Staff, Elmer Tzalam and Jacob Marlin, pose for a quick photo after placing a sign along the Southern Highway.

Education Committee Advancing Education and Long-term Monitoring at BFREE

Dr. Stewart Skeate of Lees-McRae College and Sipriano Canti, BFREE Head Ranger and Tour Guide, tag trees in the cacao grid for the fruit phenology study.


The BFREE Education Committee was convened in late 2014 to help BFREE deliver the highest quality field courses possible. The committee is chaired by board member Dr. Peter Esselman (US Geological Survey), and composed of professors with long running study abroad programs at BFREE, including Dr. Sara Ash (University of the Cumberlands), Dr. Stewart Skeate (Lees-McRae College), Dr. Maarten Vonhof (Western Michigan University), Dr. James Rotenberg (University of North Carolina Wilmington and BFREE Board Member), and Mr. Mark Lucey (Vermont Commons School).

Over the past year, the committee met monthly and developed a model for curricula that would simultaneously provide valuable field-experiences to students and high-quality data to BFREE’s science and conservation programs. Two curricula have been developed and piloted so far, focuses on comparing small mammal communities and tree flowering and fruiting patterns between cacao and broadleaf forest habitats (developed by Dr. Ash and Skeate respectively).

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University of the Cumberlands students learn to extract small mammals from Sherman Traps as part of the small mammal community study. Photo by Jackson Barrett

Student Spotlight

BFREE Program Coordinator, Tyler Sanville, Interviews UNC Wilmington Graduate Student, James Abbott

James Abbott traveled with Dr. Jamie Rotenberg on a January expedition in search of the harpy eagle.


Tyler: Hi James, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

James: I’m James Abbott, originally from Yorktown, VA but I have been in Wilmington, NC since 2008. I am a second year graduate student in the Environmental Studies Department at UNCW concentrating in Environmental Education. My undergraduate background from UNCW is in Conservation Biology and Wildlife, specifically birds. I would like to use my research into the conservation of threatened habitats and species as a means to educate and connect people to our environment, our role in that environment, and the positive impact we can have on our environment.
Tyler: What did you do while you were at the BFREE field station?
James: This most recent trip to BFREE was an expedition into the Bladen Nature Reserve up to the harpy eagle nest to see if the birds were nesting or were in the area. We spent one night at BFREE then hiked up into the reserve and spent five days up near the nest. A team of people containing researchers, rangers, harpy experts, BFREE Avian Technicians, William Garcia and Gato Pop, and finally BFREE Director, Jacob Marlin, made the all-day hike up the Bladen River. We did not find the harpy eagles on the nest so we spent the remaining days looking for the birds in nearby areas and from observation points on ridge lines. We returned to BFREE and conducted an unofficial Christmas Bird Count on the BFREE property.
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Baird’s Tapir photographed in the Bladen River by James Abbott

The Corozal Rotary Club Visits BFREE to Learn about Composting Toilets

Signage at the BFREE field station showing the design of the composting toilets built two years ago.


The Corozal Rotary Club #1794 recently started their Sustainable Toilet Project in Belize to support local schools in order to improve or replace their existing bathroom facilities. Because most schools have a limited water supply and would be unable to repair or replace flush systems the Corozal Rotary Club set out to learn about composting toilets. With a few requirements in mind such as low or no water use and a model that would improve the general health of the students as well as being inexpensive and sustainable the Club reached out to BFREE for more information.

BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin successfully designed and oversaw the construction of three composting toilets at the BFREE field station over two years ago. Members of the Club heard about Jacob’s composting toilet design and arranged a visit to the field station to start their planning process. The group spent one night at the field station learning how the sustainable toilets function and discussed best methods for replicating the construction for schools in the Corozal District.

Read More about the Corozal Rotary Club's trip to BFREE
By Caitlin Addison-Howard, Rotary Toilet Project Coordinator →

Interior stall of one of the composting toilets at BFREE.
A troop of howler monkeys was recently photographed from the observation tower.

Howler Monkeys at BFREE


Visitors and staff alike at BFREE are regularly serenaded by the Black howler monkey (Alouatta pigra). This species is conspicuous because their loud vocalizations carry for as many as three miles.Male howler monkeys generally vocalize in order to mark their territory unlike other species which leave their sign with scrapes or scent on the forest floor or on trees.

Their roar can be eerie, giving the impression of a large almost prehistoric creature but when seen up close their relatively small size is surprising.  At BFREE, howler monkeys often startle visitors awake during the night and create quite an uproar during the day.

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Recently, some of the staff at BFREE observed a newborn Howler monkey had fallen from a tree adjacent to the bunkhouse.
We were able to capture the newborn on video. Watch it here →

Troops range in size from 3 to over a dozen individuals.
BFREE staff and supporters after the film premier at the 7th annual Cinema Verde International Film Festival in Gainesville, Florida.

"Wings of Hope"
Film Premier in Gainesville, Florida


In the US for BFREE hometown of Gainesville, our documentary “Wings of Hope” premiered at the 7th annual Cinema Verde International Film Festival. The festival showcased over 30 films from around the world with a goal "to increase public awareness about environmental practices that enhance public health and that improve the quality of life for all." The Festival also served as a forum for community organizations, businesses, and citizens to discuss ways to work together to create a sustainable culture.

BFREE was honored to have “Wings of Hope” shown as part of the Cinema Verde International Film Festival at the Hippodrome State Theater. Following the film, BFREE Director Jacob Marlin along with members of the Alachua Audubon Society answered questions from viewers about Harpy Eagles, migratory birds and how we can all work together to best protect them.

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Juvenile Harpy Eagle spotted on the nest during a routine monitoring expedition in 2013. Photo by Kai Reed.

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