The Sierra Cucapa, a Wild and Arid Valley of Baja California

In the Sierra Cucapa, a solemn and sacred site for the Cucapa people, there are species of flora and fauna that it is essential to strengthen and preserve the richness and biodiversity of Baja California.

The Sierra Cucapa, a Wild and Arid Valley of Baja California
In Baja California ejidatarios combat desertification in the Sierra Cucapá. Photo: Conafor

The rugged desert landscape of the Sierra Cucapá, south of the city of Mexicali, in Baja California, is a site of cultural relevance, plagued by myths, legends, stories, and ancestral ceremonies, inhabited by the Cucapá or "river people", one of the four Yuman ethnic groups that persevere in Baja California, who have inhabited the region for at least 2,000 years.

Different agents have influenced the decline of this Amerindian ethnic group, which is why the Cucapa language is at high risk of disappearing. The progressive drought of the Sierra Cucapá threatens to destroy ancient ways of life and culture, in addition to the disappearance of an ecological environment that for thousands of years represented the harmonization between indigenous people and nature.

Species Diversity in Sierra Cucapa

The Sierra Cucapá has a rich and delicate biodiversity, the product of a process of speciation, demonstrated by the levels of endemism and given its nature as an isolated mountain massif. Studies on the sierra are scarce, which is why there is no inventory that approximates its quantification, but it undoubtedly harbors a notorious wealth of species.

The Sierra Cucapá is characterized by its dry and very hot environment, during the summer it can reach 50°C. Desert scrub predominates, composed mainly of shrubs such as the gobernadora (Larrea tridentata), hierba de burro (Ambrosia dumosa), palo fierro (Olneya tesota), cacti such as the barrel cactus (Ferocactus cylindraceus) and an endemic agave (Agave turneri) described as a new species in 2011. These last three species are subject to protection under Mexican environmental legislation due to their restricted range and habitat, prolonged drought, and proximity to the Mexicali metropolitan area.

Ferocactus cylindraceus, a species subject to special protection.
Ferocactus cylindraceus, a species subject to special protection.

Corresponding to the plant diversity, there is an evident wealth of fauna. The bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) is one of the emblematic species of Baja California that inhabits the Sierra Cucapá. This species is a cultural symbol that has been widely represented in stone engravings and cave paintings, and some native peoples, such as the Cucapá, continue to carry out rituals around this species. One of them is "The dance of the sheep", a prayer for good hunting since this animal was an essential food in their diet.

Agave turneri, endemic species.
Agave turneri, endemic species (Photo A. Monter-Pozos).

Within the sierra, we find the bobcat or lynx (Lynx rufus), one of the two species of felines present in Baja California, the mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus), the desert fox (Vulpes macrotis), a species that is in danger of extinction; the coyote (Canis latrans), which has been a transcendental species in the mythology of the cucapá, and a great diversity of wild rodents, among them the charismatic juancitos (Xerospermophilus tereticaudus), which belong to the ground squirrel family, and the kangaroo rats (Dipodomys merriami), characterized by their long legs that propel them.

Bighorn sheep, Ovis canadensis.
Bighorn sheep, Ovis canadensis.

There are also diverse and fascinating species of reptiles linked to the different types of substrate and vegetation. One of these species is the collared lizard (Crotaphytus grismeri), which is identified by its striking coloration and a very restricted (microendemic) distribution; the desert iguana (Dipsosaurus dorsalis), the lizards commonly known as "chameleons" or "blood weepers" (Phrynosoma platyrhinos and Phrynosoma mcalli).

Kangaroo rat, Dipodomys merriami.
Kangaroo rat, Dipodomys merriami.

The zebra-tailed lizard (Callisaurus draconoides), the latter two species listed as endangered, and the northwestern horned rattlesnake (Crotalus cerastes), whose name comes from the Latin "cerasta", which means horn, referring to the enlarged scales above both eyes that project upwards (supraocular scales).

Finally, the diversity of birds in the Sierra Cucapá is uncertain. There are no reports mentioning that the sierra is part of the Pacific migratory route for birds, such as the Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve and Colorado River Delta, and the evaporation ponds of the Cerro Prieto geothermal field, located on one side of the sierra.

Collared lizard, Crotaphytus grismeri.
Collared lizard, Crotaphytus grismeri (Photo A. Monter-Pozos).

Birds were relevant in the cosmo-anthropogenesis of the Cucapa, naming one of their hills, Huishpá (Eagle Hill), as the most important ceremonial center where they sang and danced for days at a time.

Also, wild birds such as quail (Callipepla gambelii), pigeons (Zenaida asiatica), and roadrunners (Geococcyx californianus) were part of the diet of this indigenous group even during the first half of the 20th century. Other species that can be found in the sierra are the nightjar (Chordeiles acutipennis), the violet-headed hummingbird (Calypte costae), and Cooper's hawk (Accipiter cooperii), and the cinnamon-breasted hawk (Accipiter striatus), both under protection, just to mention a few.

Northwest Horned Rattlesnake, Crotalus cerastes.
Northwest Horned Rattlesnake, Crotalus cerastes.

Main threats

Despite its biological and cultural diversity, Sierra Cucapá does not have any federal, state, or municipal protection decrees. The closest protected areas include the Sierra de Juárez Priority Terrestrial Region, 35 km to the west, isolated by the Laguna Salada watershed, and the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve, 25 km to the east, which highlights the importance of incorporating this area into the system of protected natural areas.

There are activities in and around the sierra that put its biodiversity at risk, such as mining, agriculture, illegal looting of species for commercialization, and recently the EcoZoneMX integrated project, which aims to extract stone materials, manage hazardous waste, and build housing on the sierra's slopes.

Violet-headed Hummingbird, Calypte costae.
Violet-headed Hummingbird, Calypte costae (Photo A. Monter-Pozos).

How can we protect biodiversity?

It is important to establish the necessary measures to reduce or mitigate human impacts within the sierra, taking into account the heterogeneity of the landscape that composes it. For example, the presence of the bighorn sheep (O. canadensis), considered a flagship species (charismatic species that serve as a symbol to attract governmental, public, or potential donor support for the implementation of conservation programs) in the arid-mountainous ecosystems of its range in Mexico and one of the most important hunting species at the national and international level, justifies the application of conservation strategies such as Wildlife Conservation Management Units, which would help protect its habitat and prevent its disappearance, as has happened in other areas of the republic.

These measures should also be extended to other species such as the mule deer (O. hemionus), which is also on the list of priority species for conservation in Mexico, and the desert fox (V. macrotis), which is threatened in Mexico. macrotis), a threatened species in Mexico, as well as the propagation of plant species such as agave (A. turneri), palo fierro (O. tesota), and barrel cactus (F. cylindraceus), which have a very restricted distribution, so their long-term survival is compromised.

View of the Sierra Cucapá (Photo A. Monter-Pozos).
View of the Sierra Cucapá (Photo A. Monter-Pozos).

In conclusion, in the Sierra Cucapá, in addition to being a solemn and sacred site for the Cucapá, there are species of flora and fauna with a disjunct distribution and under conservation that it is fundamental to strengthen with the work of the institutions that are dedicated to describe and preserve the richness and biodiversity of Baja California; also, it is urgent to have more support from local and federal authorities to stop the reduction and environmental devastation of the sierra and, as far as possible, reverse it.

By Julio C. Hernández-Hernández of Pronatura Veracruz A. C., Source: Elementos