Location and Values: The El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve is located in the Sonoran Desert along Mexico’s northern border with the United States. The Sonora is one of North America’s four great deserts (the others being the Chihuahuan, Mojave and Great Basin Deserts), and the world heritage site encompasses an exceptional combination of Sonoran Desert features. It includes North America’s largest field of active sand dunes, and a dormant volcanic shield of perfectly-formed, circular steam-blast (Maar) craters, lava flows and other volcanic features. The dramatic contrast between the golden sands of the Gran Desierto de Altar and the austere beauty of the Pinacate Volcanic Shield with its red and black lava flows, craters, cinder cones and lava tubes creates a landscape of exceptional scenic value. In addition to its scenic and geological attributes, the site is listed for its exceptional biodiversity values. Compared with other desert areas, the site supports a surprisingly high diversity of plant and animal species (recognizing that deserts are generally rather species-poor relative to other biomes). These include 540 documented species of higher plants, 44 mammals, 200 birds and 40 species of reptile, including several endemic to the Sonoran Desert or known only from this particular site.
Conservation Status and Prospects. According to IUCN’s Conservation Outlook Assessment (2017) the conservation status of the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve is ‘good, with some concerns’. The IUCN report notes that the harsh desert conditions and inhospitable terrain provide a high degree of natural protection to the site, while the reserve’s large size and position within a larger complex of protected areas ensures that it has a high degree of natural ecological resilience. However, there are a number of significant threats, including (1) invasive species, (2) climate change, (3) increasing water consumption in the broader region, (4) mining concessions overlapping with the property and plans for salt extraction in its vicinity, and (5) security infrastructure along the international border between Mexico and the USA (which is affecting animal movements and landscape connectivity). The most significant of these long-term threats are alien invasive species and climate change, both of which could lead to dramatic changes in the desert ecosystem. The IUCN report notes that other parts of the Sonoran Desert have already suffered from the spread of non-native grasses resulting in increased fire frequency and intensity and altering the entire desert ecosystem.
Official UNESCO Site Details
IUCN Conservation Outlook
UNEP-WCMC Site Description