The Bladen Review 2019

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Letter from the Executive Director

Greetings from BFREE. As this year wraps up, I am so pleased to share with you another edition of the Bladen Review which highlights some of our many ongoing conservation programs at the BFREE privately protected area and the work we do throughout Belize to “conserve the biodiversity and cultural heritage of Belize.” With your support and encouragement, we continue to work tirelessly to conserve the Maya Mountains, one of the most biologically rich and diverse rainforests of our planet. For those of you new to BFREE, I encourage you to explore these pages and check out past editions of the Bladen Review and so much more in our recently revised website at When BFREE was founded back in 1994, the terms “global warming” and “climate change” weren’t common in the public domain. Today, they’re in the headlines every day, and the facts make clear that our planet is rapidly changing in ways that are fundamentally transforming our world and everything in it. Bold action must be taken in every level of society, and quickly. It’s up to all of us, whether politician, teacher, artist, or athlete; each of us makes choices every day, and these decisions will dictate the kind of future we leave to our children. I am encouraged by the passion we see in the younger generation about caring better for the earth. It gives me hope. For our part, we strive to motivate, educate, and provide inspiration to the myriad of visitors who visit the field station every year. Our work to create a culture of global citizens who care deeply about our planet and who make choices leading towards reversing the causes of a climate change and an era of climate crisis is ultimately the BFREE legacy. Recently, much international attention has been focused on the plight of the Amazon Rainforest, the largest expanse of Rainforest left on Earth. It is deeply disturbing to see the rate of deforestation caused by one leader’s policies, but this trend is far from new, and it reminds me that one person can make a huge difference in our world, for good or bad. It also strengthens my resolve about the work that we do in Belize. The Maya Mountains, our backyard, is considered the largest continuous expanse of tropical rainforest north of the Amazon. Please help us to keep it that way. These rainforests serve as the lungs of our planet, contributing to carbon storage, clean air, clean water, and biodiversity preservation. Change is a constant, and as the world continues to grapple with the effects of a rapidly changing climate, BFREE’s mission is more important now than ever. Together, we can make a difference. In stewardship and gratitude, Jacob A. Marlin Executive Director

In Memory of William Garcia Jamie Rotenberg and Vibeke Olson Not everyone finds their true passion. William was lucky - he found his in science and birds. We were lucky - we found William. He enriched so many lives: ours, our students’, local students’ and the scientific community’s. He was a great ambassador for Belize and for conservation, and his contributions to the bird program at BFREE were invaluable. His accomplishments included the discovery of the first active harpy eagle nest in Belize, being the first certified banded-trainer in Belize, being an enthusiastic outreach educator, and so many others - more than most can boast in a lifetime. Like you, we are better for having known William. Spread your wings and fly, dear friend. Gracias a dios por la oportunidad a conocer lo.

Board of Directors Jacob Marlin James Rotenberg, PhD Peter Esselman, PhD Robert Klinger, PhD Gentry Mander, JD Belize Staff Jacob Marlin, Executive Director Sipriano Canti, Head Ranger & Tour Guide Elmer Tzalam, Operations Manager Thomas Pop, HCRC Manager Erick Ac, Cacao Farm Manager Ornella “Nelly” Cadle, Field Course Leader Jaren Serano, Science & Education Fellow Lenardo Ash, Science Fellow Pedro Rash, Cacao Farm Worker Catalina Alvarez, Cacao Farm Worker Virginia Tush, Cacao Farm Worker Mauricio Choc, Cacao Farm Worker Markos Kuk, Ranger Pedro Teul, Ranger Betty Shul, Cook Ofelia Cus, Housekeeper US Staff Heather Barrett, Deputy Director Tyler Sanville, Program Manager Report Design

by Tim Collingwood Front Cover Photo by Giovanni Martinez Giovanni is an avid birder and photographer. This photo was taken at BFREE and was his first Harpy eagle sighting. This photo represents the 8th sighting of a Harpy eagle within BFREE’s borders. As the landscape in southern Belize changes, the BFREE reserve has become one of the last remaining refuges of lowland tropical forest adjacent to the Bladen Nature Reserve and the Maya Mountains - the rest is being converted or destroyed.

Back Cover Photo of adult male Hicatee turtle by Dustin Smith Photos by BFREE staff unless credited otherwise

A Quick Look Back 2 0 1 8



Rob Klinger continues gathering data for the detailed map of the BFREE reserve with the help of the staff and UF’s Lex Thomas.

Cacao Science Committee established to guide research at the field station.

Shipped replacement entrance road truck and protection program ATV to Belize.


2 0 1 9

Elyse Ofelia Pop, Ellsworth, Betty Shol & University of Avelina Choc Oklahoma, rebuild the begins field fire hearth at research on the BFREE Hicatee turtles. kitchen.

FEBRUARY “Snails of Belize” Workshop is offered to tour guides and educators at BFREE .


The HCRC expands to include a rearing pond for turtles hatched in captivity.


Hicatee Turtle education p ackets were mailed to primary schools in the Belize R i v e r Va l l e y.

Harpy eagle spotted at BFREE and videoed by Wayne Hall.

The Chocolate Lab at the Cacao Discovery Center is completed and chocolate-making demos begin.

APRIL MSU’s Turtle Ecology Lab team up with BFREE to perform population studies on Hicatee turtles.

Team Hicatee competes in La Ruta Maya to raise awareness for Hicatee conservation.

Scientific note describing Hicatee turtle hatchlings published in Herpetological Review.

Male staff house is renovated and expanded.

Cool Spot gets a new thatched roof.

Thomas Pop and Jaren Serano present on the HCRC at the Mesoamerican Society for Conservation Biology meeting in Belmopan.

Second observation post constructed at BFREE for ranger protection program.

Iris Holmes and her team from University of Michigan survey reptiles & amphibians at BFREE and other locations in Belize.

7,000 cacao seedlings were

Flagler College field course performs preliminary turtle assessment of the property.

160 Hicatee turtles hatch at the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center.

JULY Santa Fe Teaching Zoo selects BFREE and the Hicatee turtle as one of their Quarters for Conservation projects.

produced at the BFREE nursery and will be used to convert degraded land to an agroforestry system.

AUGUST Jacob Marlin elected president of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation fund.

Avery Tilley was one of many helpful BFREE interns and volunteers during 2019.

Thomas Pop and Jaren Serano travel to the US to attend the TSA conference and visit BFREE partner research sites.

SEPTEMBER Jacob Marlin and Erick Ac visit USDA/ ARS to discuss research program on Cacao.

Spring Hicatee Health Assessment.


JUNE BFREE is granted Porras Conservation Award at the International Herpetological Symposium.

Marcel Rejmanek, UC Davis, returns to continue research on palms.

Jaren Serano is recognized with an award for “Best Student Presentation” at the annual TSA conference in Tucson, Arizona.

New composting bathroom at the HCRC.

OCTOBER Fall Hicatee Health Assessment.

Female staff house renovated at BFREE.

Avid birders, Aaron Juan and Giovanni Martinez, photographed the Harpy eagle at BFREE.

3rd annual Hicatee Awareness Month is celebrated in Belize and with partners in the US.

BFREE chocolate featured in Master Gardener Conference in Florida.

Thanks to our 2019 Field Courses: Allegheny College, Flagler College, Independence Junior College, Jacksonville University, Marshall College, University of Massachusetts - Amherst, and University of North Carolina - Wilmington

Discovering “The Mother” of Chocolate at BFREE Jacob Marlin Discovered deep in the rainforests of southern Belize growing on the 1,153 acre BFREE privately protected area lies a remnant population of ancient wild cacao trees. On the advice of industry experts, beans from the wild trees were submitted to the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP) for genetic testing and flavor analysis. The results determined that the trees are likely the descendants of the original chocolate tree, 100% pure criollo parentage, grown and revered by pre-Columbian indigenous peoples and ancient Mayan Civilizations, and one of the few pure wild cacaos known to exist on the planet. It also happens to have exceptional and unique flavor! In 2016 the beans were designated “heirloom fine flavor” by HCP, only the 11th chocolate in the world to receive such an honor. Since this designation, BFREE has become an active partner with HCP which has generously been providing small grants to BFREE over the past two years to assist with the development of our work to propagate heirloom fine flavor cacao. influences threatening the world’s supply of high quality, flavorful cacao. Recognizing that these endangered cacao trees are the foundation not only for delicious chocolate but also for the livelihood of many farmers and farming communities, the HCP took the initiative to identify and map the world of high quality, fine flavor cacao and certify growers of these endangered trees.

The Big Picture

Erick Ac has joined our team as the Cacao Project Manager. Erick has more than 16 years of experience in the field and will be implementing a program to conserve the genetics of criollo cacao at BFREE and oversee all aspects of our cacao agroforestry program.

Why Does This Matter?

This discovery was especially exciting to us because of the inherent conservation value - the variety of cacao appears to require environmental conditions that incentivize tropical forest conservation. As a result of this discovery, BFREE began a project to preserve and propagate this rare and wild ancient heirloom fine flavor cacao while investigating its economic, social, and environmental benefits, ultimately correlating a high-value crop to a diverse and healthy rainforest habitat. Propagated from these wild trees grown under a variety of different conditions, BFREE has begun a long-term research program with over 15 acres of cacao growing in an agroforestry environment, where wildlife like Jaguars, Tapirs, Howler monkeys, Harpy eagles, and Scarlet macaws make their home.

Agriculture in tropical countries including Belize continues to expand at an alarming rate. Accompanying this increase in agricultural production is the challenge of conserving biodiversity and maintaining the ecosystem services provided by tropical forests. Agroforestry has been identified as a potential solution to minimize threats to tropical forests and provide income to local communities. However, little is known about the trade-offs between shade-grown cacao, and the ecological communities and ecosystem services provided by tropical forests. By measuring and comparing the ecosystems of tropical forests to those of cacao plantations, we can plan to optimize cacao production along with the preservation and conservation of existing biodiversity. Given the increasing expansion of cacao in tropical agroecosystems around the world, the BFREE cacao-based agroforestry research program has global implications.

The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund

HCP was established in 2012 with the mission to “identify and preserve fine flavor “heirloom” cacao for the preservation of biological diversity and the empowerment of farming communities”. Launched in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) www., HCP formed in response to the global pressures of environmental change, deforestation, and economic

Allegheny College participated in BFREE’s “Birds, Chocolate, Forest” field course this year. The course is designed to focus on biodiversity and avian conservation, sustainable community development, and agriculture and food systems.

Saving the Rainforest One Bar at a Time Interested in BFREE chocolate? Limited supplies are available; email for more info. Follow us online to be informed about the official launch of BFREE’s new chocolate brand, CRIOCO.

A Transformative Experience “Throughout the history of life on earth, we have created pathways to guide our journeys, transmit messages, refine complexity and preserve wisdom.” Robert Moor in “On Trails” During Summer 2019, Thomas Pop and I were granted the opportunity to travel to Tucson, Arizona to attend the Turtle Survival Alliance’s 17th Annual Symposium on the Conservation and Biology of Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises. Our journey consisted not only of going from Belize to Tucson and back again. In fact, we traveled over 2,700 miles in a Honda Civic, as passengers moving at 75 mph toward destinations unknown - destined to be unexpectedly re-tuned, rejuvenated and re-inspired. Traveling to the United States for the first time was a bit unnerving. There was a great deal of anxiety as we each applied for US Traveling Visas and awaited approval from the US Embassy. Then, when we were finally approved, there was the uncertainty of all that would come next. Getting on a plane, unsure about what awaited us, and adapting to new systems were all part of surrendering to the art and practice of traveling. Thomas Pop recalls, “Being in the U.S. blew my mind - movies s er ved as my only reference to the different landscapes I was actually seeing. Every site was its own unique experience; none greater than the other with all being so special. Whether it was spotting a Gila monster in the Sonoran Desert, sitting up close to the heavens at White Sands National

Monument, looking at hol e s w he re whales might have lived in the Grand Canyon, holding a juvenile Alligator snapping turtle at t h e Ti s h om i ngo Hatchery or spotting King Kong’s family members at the Oklahoma City Zoo, this was truly a special experience which is now my favorite memory.” A major perk of traveling is meeting new people, but what is even more extraordinary is discovering new sides of people whom you already know. Traveling in a car from Albuquerque to Nashville provided us the opportunity to explore the states of Arizona, Oklahoma, and Missouri and to meet on their own turf with researchers and colleagues with whom we have worked in Belize. Our experience in the United States has opened our hearts and minds to different possibilities, including within the conservation field. Although venturing out was transformative, being away also strengthened our appreciation for home and the simplicities and familiarities to which we have grown accustomed. Returning to Belize and to our work with the Critically Endangered Hicatee turtle has made us take a step back, and view the country from an outsider’s perspective and we feel very much inspired. We can now see how more positive changes can be made in our country, and that in itself is motivation to keep pursuing paths, both new and old.

Teaching and Learning Education is one of the pillars on which BFREE was founded and it continues to be a driving force for much of our work. Though none of our staff are trained educators, we all recognize that BFREE offers many opportunities to teach and learn. We are also aware that not everyone has had access to formal education throughout their lives, so most of the staff at BFREE spend time both as students and as teachers.

Jaren Serano & Thomas Pop

Heather Barrett

instructor to fit the opportunities available on any given day and the interests and personalities of the students involved. During 2019, BFREE staff were busy both teaching and learning thus expanding their knowledge in their areas of expertise. • Malacologists, Dan and Judy Dourson, returned to BFREE to offer a workshop on the importance of Land Snails in the ecosystem. Participants included BFREE staff, tour guides, staff of partner NGOs, and nature enthusiasts from all over Belize. • Lenardo Ash joined the team as our second BFREE Science Fellow. Leo is a recent junior college graduate whose focus will be in cacao agroforestry. • Thomas Pop and Jaren Serano traveled to the U.S. to present at a professional conference. While there they toured national parks, zoos, and museums, and visited research partner facilities. • Sipriano Canti and Nelly Cadle continued their tour guide training and certifications with the Belize Tourism Board.

We’ve always described our activities as experiential because when the rainforest is your classroom, life lessons await you around each bend in the Bladen River and in each mouth-watering bite of a ripe custard apple. There is a certain freedom in knowing that lessons don’t have to be traditionally structured but instead can be adapted by each

• Ofelia Cus, Betty Shol and Avelina Choc began teaching visitors about building, maintaining and cooking on traditional Maya fire hearths. • Jaren Serano presented on the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center at three conferences (two in Belize and one in the U.S.).

Field Work in Belize

Elyse is pictured here with turtles that were confiscated by the Fisheries Department because they were being transported over the legal limit. Wildlife Conservation Society, Belize, contacted Elyse after the confiscation to determine if she could collect useful data on them. She was able to take samples and measurements before they were released.

Elyse Ellsworth, University of Oklahoma I began field work for my Master’s thesis in January, 2019 – a spatial ecology study on the Hicatee (Dermatemys mawii). I am interested in understanding why this species chooses to inhabit the spaces they do, and how they use their space for foraging, shelter and mating. I also hope to gain a better understanding of how their choice of habitat changes over a season and a lifetime. I am specifically studying their movement patterns and am investigating what factors are important in making their choice of habitat. Via radio telemetry, I have tagged and will be tracking several individuals for two seasons. In collaboration with BFREE and the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), I hope to learn more about the ecology of this species. I plan to follow up this preliminary study with additional field studies, continuing to collect similar data for a more robust evaluation of potential release sites of captive bred individuals and the long-term viability of the Hicatee’s reproduction and survival in Belize.

In Pursuit of the Hicatee Just how much have Hicatee populations declined? Everyone with experience with the species seems to agree that declines are alarmingly great, but it’s hard to put numbers on them. Excellent research has generated insights into the species’ ecology, reproduction, distribution and relative abundance, but since the 1980s efforts have been intermittent and seldom generated more than qualitative assessments of population sizes or demographics. This isn’t for lack of interest or effort; animals that have the capacity to move long distances and occupy open systems such as rivers are extremely challenging to count! Fortunately, technological and analytical advances have made the solutions to this problem more attainable. In spring 2019, members of the Turtle Ecology Lab at Missouri State University teamed up with partners at BFREE and with support from the Turtle Survival Alliance and the Government of Belize to determine the feasibility of generating population estimates. In five weeks of field work, 193 Hicatee in three different populations were captured, weighed, measured, and permanently marked for future identification. Additionally, a subset of turtles in a closed lagoon system were equipped with GPS tags and sonic transmitters that will produce information about their movements. These data will be especially interesting as the rainy season commences, the lagoon reconnects to the Belize River, and turtles have the option of either staying within the lagoon or venturing out into flooded forest or even to the river. This information about the movement patterns of Hicatee will be put to use in 2020 when mark-recapture efforts will be conducted to generate some of the first precise population estimates for the species. These estimates, when generated in open rivers, become much more accurate when typical movement patterns are known and can be included in population models. In addition to calculating the size of populations of Hicatee in both open and closed populations, as well as in hunted and protected areas, work in 2020 will benefit in other ways from the preliminary research conducted in 2019. For instance, growth rates in captivity are known thanks to research conducted at BFREE. However, little is known of growth rates in the wild; by recapturing turtles that were first measured in 2019, not only will calculating growth rates across a range of size

Dr. Day Ligon, Missouri State University

classes be possible, but so too will assessing the sexual maturity of the many subadult turtles that were captured provide information about size at maturity. All of this information is but a drop in the bucket compared to what remains to be discovered about the fascinating Hicatee, but every new piece of life history data can help to inform conservation efforts on the species’ behalf.

Hicatee Field Research Team. Clockwise from left Jaren Serano, Yamira Novelo, Thomas Pop, Donald McKnight, Ethan Hollander, Day Ligon Not Pictured Denise Thompson, Hunter Howell, Jacob Marlin


Monkey River Watershed Association

Thank You to All Our Donors We are grateful for both the financial and in-kind donations received from Summer 2018 – Fall 2019. Please let us know of any omissions or errors on this list.

Peter Esselman

$10-$99 Princess Cone Snail Albert Stankan • Alex Doll • Amanda Hobart Trust • Bernard Levine and Alice Howard Cherlyn Sanford • Christine Jackson • Donald and Victoria Velsey • Donna Akers Ed and Ruth Cogen • Eileen Doll • Erin Grabarczyk • Eyob Solomon • Gil Squiers Glenda Minnick • Jeffrey Hill • Jennifer DeNicholas • Jered McGivern • Jon Sanville Joseph A. Fulcher • Judy Scott Feldman • Kelly Sanville • Laura Withers Lauren MacLean • Lee Pagni • Lisa Ramsden • Mark Harman • Michael Sanville Parr McQueen • Peter Esselman • Ralph Maya • Robert Barrett • Sean Sharp Stewart Skeate • Theresa Rizzo • Wendy Wilber $100-$249 Red-eyed Tree Frog Albert and Caroline Turkus • Amy Treonis • Bruce Brumberg • Bruce Hanson Bruce Vinik • Cassady Craighill • Ellen Collins • Eric Robinson and Chuck Black Gentry Mander and Sean Bedford • Glenn Johnson • Heather Barrett Hummingbird Elementary School’s Hicatee Committee • Jacob Marlin Jamie Rotenberg and Vibeke Olson • Jenny Biederman • Jim Crawford Joy Fulcher Sharp • Judy and Dan Dourson • Kathryn Polansky Ken & Jane Lieberthal • Leah Mermelstein • Libby Even • Maarten Vonhof Marcel Rejmanek • Matthew and Susan Kane • Melissa Elbert Molly and Daniel Sperduto • Paul Pickhardt and Kristine Feggestad Richard and Phyllis Wasserstrom • Richard L. Zerilli • Ruth Goldman Stan Stahl and Rita Carton • Tyler Sanville • United Way of Sheboyga $250-$499 Howler Monkey American Association of Zoo Keepers, Jacksonville Zoo Bernard Arons • David and Lainey Nexon • Greg and Jennifer Smith James and Kimberly Humphries • Jessica MacLean and Family Joseph and Merna Guttentag • Richard and Nancy Gould Ruth Gramlich • Thomas Gottschalk $500-$999 Fruit-eating Bat Copperhead Environmental Consulting • Dave McCargo Diana Foster and Thomas Jones • Nancy Stanley • Phil Garofalo • Roger McDaniels $1000-$4,999 Baird’s Tapir Glenn and Peggy Willumson • Jacksonville Zoological Society Josh Lampl and the Lampl Family Foundation • Julie Sandler • Kate Murren Katelyn Loukes • Michael Krinsky • Oklahoma City Zoological Trust Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo • William and Jeanne Dennler $5,000 - $9,999 Harpy Eagle Anonymous Joseph and Lynne Horning Martha Strawn $10,000 + Hicatee Turtle Jacksonville Zoological Society David and Jackie Marlin Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund Turtle Survival Alliance Zoo New England

BFREE is located in the headwaters of the Bladen Branch of the Monkey River, a large tropical river that discharges to the Caribbean Sea south of Placencia. Despite the pristine character of the headwaters the Monkey River watershed has been home to Belize’s banana industry for nearly 100 years, with particularly intensive cultivation since the early 1980’s. The banana industry brought clearing, roads, laborer settlements, squatters, intensive gravel mining, fish and wildlife harvest, deforestation and introduction of non-native species. One of the most striking outcomes of 40 years of watershed exploitation was the disruption of sand delivery to the mouth of the Monkey River, which resulted in partial destruction of one of Belize’s great historical villages, Monkey River Village, to beach erosion. The crisis at the river mouth is a reflection of degradation along the entire river continuum, with nine other communities suffering from reduced river flow, toxic pollution, depleted fish and game, and poor water quality. In response to the crisis, BFREE partnered with all communities in the watershed to form the Monkey River Watershed Association. MRWA is a community-based organization working to conserve and restore the integrity of the entire Monkey River Watershed and ensure that it continues to provide a multitude of benefits to watershed residents and the coastal ecosystem. MRWA’s first success after registering in 2017 was to secure a US$50,000 grant from the United Nations Development Programme. The funds were used to pilot test inexpensive beach protection structures in front of Monkey River Village and write a “roadmap” for restoration of the Monkey River watershed. One hundred and sixty feet of sand filled “geotubes” have since been installed in front of the most threatened properties, leading to 30 feet of beach growth for the first time in decades. The roadmap itself was completed in April 2019. In addition to identifying reduced sand delivery to the coast from upriver—not sea level rise—as the likely main cause of the beach erosion problem, the roadmap also defines restoration goals and actions needed to achieve the desired states of the river and the shoreline. BFREE will continue to support MRWA with fundraising in the months and years ahead, and remains committed to protection of the Bladen Nature Reserve and connected protected areas which provide water and sand to all downstream areas. To read the roadmap, visit

Over 30 feet of beach has been renewed naturally since the installation of geotubes in Monkey River Village preventing this house and others from falling into the sea.

Belize Foundation for Research and Environmental Education 4320 West University Avenue Gainesville, FL 32607

Zoos and Aquariums Helping to Save the Hicatee Zoos and Aquariums have provided tremendous support for our Hicatee work during 2019. We would like to recognize these exciting new and continuing partnerships: • Zoo New England and BFREE entered a three-year research and husbandry partnership working toward Hicatee reintroductions to the wild • Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo selected BFREE’s Hicatee outreach program as one of their Quarters for Conservation projects • Jacksonville Zoo & Aquarium’s ZooTeens! collect donations for conservation every summer by talking with guests and playing games with children at Conservation Stations. They voted for this year’s donations to support BFREE’s Hicatee work • Jacksonville Zoo & Aquarium also continues to support the bi-annual Hicatee Health Assessments with funding and by sending staff to participate • Oklahoma City Zoo’s Care Grant program supported the buildout of the rearing pond for hatchlings • South Carolina Aquarium continues to send experienced veterinarian, Dr. Shane Boylan, to monitor the health of Hicatee each year during the fall health assessment

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