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Rapid Ecological Assessment

Aguacaliente Wildlife Sanctuary (Lu Ha), Toledo District, Belize

The Aguacaliente Wildlife Sanctuary (AWS) National Park is located in the Toledo district of Belize was declared in 1998. The area covers approximately 5,468 acres of land and water. It conservation focus is the protection of the central wetland areas, which consist of three fresh water lagoons and a hot spring connected by a number of creeks.

In spite of it small size is was identified of a high priority conservation goal in the National Protected Areas Policy and Systems Plan.

At least two ecosystems occur which are not found elsewhere in Belize. One is a swamp forest type known as "Tropical evergreen broad-leaved lowland swamp forest, Aguacaliente variant" and the other is a seasonal grass land type know as "Short-grass swamp savanna without trees or shrubs"

The latter has suffered heavily as a result of the impact of hurricane Iris in 2001. An impact which was compounded by subsequent wildfires.

The protected area is co-managed by the Aguacaliente Management Team (AMT), a consortium of people from adjacent villages. In 2005, the AMT called for a Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) which was conducted out by a team under the direction of Jan Meerman and the final report was completed in December 2006.

satellite image showing the protected area (green boundary line), note the three lagoons (dark blue blobs), The village of Aguacaliente is to the lower right hand corner

The main objectives of the REA were:

· To produce biophysical information necessary for development of management plans and environmental impact assessments.
· To produce data, reports, maps, lists, classifications, descriptions, and threats identification for management, educational, inventory and funding purposes.
· Generate baseline data for monitoring activities in the Park.
· Contribute to the National inventory.
· Identify species that are in danger of becoming extinct.
· Develop preliminary data sets for future use in inventories that are more detailed and in ecological characteristics.
· Characterize natural communities, provide descriptions listing key species and assess their importance for conservation.
· Associate animal communities with the vegetation types they inhabit.
· Compare diversity among different subregions of the site.


One of the lagoons in the Aquacaliente Wildlife Sanctuary surrounded by flats with the grass species Neeragrostis contrerasii .

Important feature of the park is the tremendous change in water level. While the above pictures were taken in April 2006, after heavy rains in July 2006. Water levels increased dramatically. Such heavy fluctuations completely change the outlook of the park as can be seen from the satellite images below.

On July 13, 2006 the visitors center at the edge of the park was in 2 feet of water
On July 12, 2006 much of the raised walkway was actually covered in water
Normal high water levels in the lagoons in November 1999. The blue color depicts water, the pinkish represents grass land or other open ecosystems
Flood levels in the lagoons in January 2004. All of the grasslands and most of the forest is now under water.

Some noteworthy plants:

Hymenachne amplexicaulis. This grass is a dominating feature between the 2nd and 3rd lagoon. It floats in large masses in water up to 1 m deep. is a wetland species, inhabiting margins of swamps, river floodplains, and drainage canals,throughout the American tropics, mostly in water to about 2 m deep, occasionally extending into water 3-4 m deep. It can be grown for pasture in natural or artificially inundated pondage areas. On seasonally flooded floodplains, it needs over 1 m of water during the wet season to persist. It has low drought tolerance, not spreading beyond the wet zone, and low salt tolerance, not surviving even occasional tidal impact.

Click the image to download original image (645 kb)

This is the inflorescense of the Hymenachne amplexicaulis grass that is a dominating feature between the 2nd and 3rd lagoon. It floats in large masses in water up to 1 m deep.

Click the image to download original image (1,272 kb)

This is a scan of the Hymenachne amplexicaulis grass which is a dominating feature between the 2nd and 3rd lagoon. It floats in large masses in water up to 1 m deep.

Click the image to download original image (1,366 kb)

The grass around the lagoons is a really dominating element. Unfortunately, the species has remained unidentified for a long time. But as part of the EIA, specimens were collected and now it has been established that it is Neeragrostis contrerasii.

It is clearly a very rapid growing annual species, germinating on the mudflats in February, flowering in April and setting seed in May.

Click the image for a larger picture (277 kb)

This picture of Neeragrostis contrerasii represents a scanned image. Click the image for a larger picture (2 mb)

This water clover (really a fern): Marsilea polycarpa was found in a ricefield just outside the Aquacaliente boundary. This is a new country record.

Another new country record was the waterfern Ceratopteris thalictroides. Again found in a ricefield just outside the Aquacaliente boundary.

This "waterlily" is not a waterlily at all but an arrowroot: Sagittaria guyanensis. Yet another new country record. This small plant is very common on the muddy trail that leads from the village to the walkway.
Bravaisia integerrima (Acanthaceae) is an interesting plant with prop-roots just as in Red Mangrove (Rhizophora mangle) This species has not previously been recorded from Belize and so far has only been found in and around the Aguacaliente Wildlife Sanctuary (new country record).

Some data from the biodiversity monitoring effort being carried out the Aguacaliente Management Team Wardens (February through July 2006):

Blue Winged Teal numbers
Cattle Egret numbers
Roseate Spoonbill numbers Black-bellied Whistling Duck numbers
Olivaceous Cormorant numbers
American Woodstork numbers


Download final report (pdf format).

Go to the Aquacaliente website

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Last modified: January 4, 2011