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Cuatro Cienegas National Wildlife RefugePIP 2000

In the midst of a water-scarce desert, Cuatro Ciénegas supports unique life in its rare freshwater springs, streams and wetlands, and is one of only two desert spring ecosystems of its size in North America. This oasis is located in the heart of the Chihuahuan Desert—North America’s largest—in the middle of the Mexican state of Coahuila. The unique hydrological system of Cuatro Ciénegas has created a fascinating blend of species found nowhere else on Earth.

did you know?

Cuatro Ciénegas is home to at least 77 species of plant and animal found nowhere else on Earth.

freshwater spring, Cuatro Cienegas

Freshwater spring in Rancho Pozas Azules, Cuatro Ciénegas © Colleen Marzec/TNC


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total area protected:
208,425 acres
map of site

Chihuahuan Desert

partner organization:


Ecological Importance

As a rare sanctuary in a harsh desert habitat, Cuatro Ciénegas teems with endemic species. The refuge has more than 75 species of fish, reptiles, amphibians, crustaceans, mollusks, insects and more than 400 species of cactus found nowhere else in the world. An impressive variety of bats and migratory birds also find refuge in this desert oasis. The gypsum dunes, native grassland matrix community, xerophilic shrubs, canyon systems, and Coahuilan box turtle are other targets that have been the focus of attention in Cuatro Ciénegas.


Increased extraction of surface and ground water for irrigation, habitat conversion, and the spread of exotic species are the main threats affecting the long-term health of natural communities in the Chihuahuan Desert. Livestock grazing, cutting mesquite for firewood, cacti and reptile poaching, and unregulated tourism affect the area of Cuatro Ciénegas, as well.

A Strategy of Success

Cuatro Ciénegas was decreed a protected area in 1995, but like most Parks in Peril (PiP) sites, this act did not change land ownership, a common challenge that is now a major focus of PiP and its partners. PiP is working with several local partners who have a history of involvement in Cuatro Ciénegas to acquire private lands for conservation. Desuvalle, an organization promoting sustainable resource use, purchased two parcels of land in 2000. Both of these areas contain important gypsum dunes and pozas, or spring-fed pools. With this success, private land acquisition has become a key strategy to protect Cuatro Ciénegas.

PiP is also working with ejidos (communal lands) to develop sustainable resource alternatives such as artisan co-operatives for making souvenirs from mesquite. These souvenirs provide income to ejidos and reduce impact of the natural environment. Ejido La Vega, has already begun a project selling mesquite carvings at the reserve visitor center.

Pronatura Noreste (PNE), an organization that has promoted conservation in Cuatro Ciénegas for 20 years, is working with ejidos in Reserva Pozas Azules and Antiguos Mineros del Norte to enhance water quality and raise pool water levels by constructing simple, inexpensive water controls. PNE’s effort has enhanced the habitat in more than 130 pools and has rejuvenated shallow wetland areas surrounding the pools—a critical habitat for Coahuilan box turtles. Scientists are continuing to study the hydrology of the area to better formulate strategies for water protection and to advocate political support.

Other important projects are focusing on biodiversity conservation, including the removal of nearly 65,000 alien fish and the reintroduction of native mammals, such as desert bighorn sheep. By continuing partnerships with ejidos, local communities, and scientists, PiP staff projects the acquisition of 25,000 to 40,000 additional acres of ejido and private lands, further enhancement of  of water resource quality, and the protection of 12,000 to 15,000 acres of key habitat upon site consolidation in 2007.

Read more about Cuatro Ciénegas...

The Nature Conservancy in the Cuatro Ciénegas and the Chuihuahuan Desert

Press Release: Desert Oasis Purchased and Protected, November 21, 2001

Read more about projects in Mexico...

El Pinacate/Gran Desierto del Altar Biosphere Reserve
Ría Celestún and Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserves

Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserves
Calakmul Biosphere Reserves
Ajos Bavispe Biosphere Reserve
El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve
Loreto Bay/Isla Espíritu Santo Reserves
El Ocote Biosphere Reserve

La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve

Mexico Partner Organizations

The Nature Conservancy in Mexico