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Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve

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El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve

One of the most arid places on Earth, the El Pinacate/Gran Desierto del Altar Biosphere Reserve in Sonora, Mexico is the only desert represented in the Parks in Peril program’s portfolio. Forming a portion of the “Heart of the Sonoran Desert,” this protected area is a magical place of stark beauty, unusual creatures, unique plants and striking geologic features. As the largest active dune field in North America, these dunes, including unusual star dunes, can rise to an astonishing 200 meters. Water for wildlife is found in rare natural rock basins, or tinajas, that are scoured into the bedrock floors of lava field arroyos. Some of these water sources are permanent; others offer only an intermittent drink. The reserve employs a broad regional and international perspective by collaborating with adjacent protected areas across the U.S./Mexico border—Organ Pipe National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, and the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range—in order to make their conservation activities have the greatest impact.

did you know?

Including El Pinacate, activists from Mexico and the U.S. are working to create the Sonoran Desert National Park. The park would make the largest area of protected desert in the world—a place known as the “gran desierto.” To one environmental writer, the late Edward Abbey, it was known as “The Big Empty.”

cinder and lava

Cinder and lava © Charlie Ott


site profile

total area protected:
2 million acres
map of site

Sonoran Xeric Scrub

partner organization:
Comisión de Ecología y Desarrollo Sustentable del Estado de Sonora (CEDES)

Ecological Importance

El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve's towering sand dunes, rugged volcanic mountains, expansive craters, and the surrounding desert floor harbor species that can only survive in a climate of intense sun, rare rains and soaring temperatures.  In a place often thought to be devoid of life, more than 540 species of vascular plants, 40 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 40 species of reptiles and amphibians, and four species of freshwater fish are found. Many of these species are endemic and endangered or threatened.


As in most of Mexico's protected areas, local people depend on El Pinacate's natural resources. Although the reserve is mostly uninhabited, mining for sand and cinder has been a past source of revenue. Cattle ranching is a marginal, unsustainable resource use and where practiced, it leaves denuded, impacted soil and contaminated water sources. Associated fencing has hindered the movement of wildlife, particularly the pronghorn antelope, which unlike deer, cannot leap over fences. Uncontrolled off-road vehicle traffic has eroded dunes and cut permanent tracks into the fragile desert. The most significant long-term threats to the fragile area have been the introduction of invasive weeds along the roads and in the dunes and non-native fish into the scarce water sources.

A Strategy of Success

When PiP began at El Pinacate, the reserve was without staff, field equipment, vehicles, or a visitor center. Dirt roads and tracks cut through the fragile dunes and volcanic features and the only conservation activities taking place were antelope and big horn sheep monitoring. With PiP support, a full staff was hired, basic infrastructure was established, and fundamental conservation programs like environmental education and community outreach were initiated.

PiP worked with the partner organization Instituto de Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo Sustenable del Estado de Sonora (IMADES) to carry out conservation activities that led to site consolidation in 1999. Negotiations were quickly made with the Mexican government, mining companies, and reserve staff to end illegal mining activities in the area until proper regulations were put in place. Today, mining is controlled and in some places eliminated. Private and ejidal (communal) landowners participated in drafting a management plan and helped define appropriate economic activities.

Updated land tenure information has enabled the reserve staff to consider purchasing the few inholdings in the most sensitive region of the reserve--the active dunes. Negotiations were carried out with the ejidal land owners and a proposal has been presented to government officials.

Read more about El Pinacate/Gran Desierto del Altar...

Comisión de Ecología y Desarrollo Sustentable del Estado de Sonora (CEDES)

The Nature Conservancy in the Sonoran Desert

Read more about projects in Mexico...

Ajos-Bavispe National Forest & Wildlife Refuge
Cuatro Ciénegas National Wildlife Reserve

Loreto Bay/Isla Espiritu Santo Migratory Flora and Fauna Reserve
Ría Celestún & Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserves
La Encrucijada Biosphere Reserve
El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve
Sian Ka'an Biosphere Reserve
El Ocote Biosphere Reserve

Calakmul Biosphere Reserve

Mexico Partner Organizations

The Nature Conservancy in Mexico