Chihuahuan Desert at the Zoo

by Rick LoBello

Recognized globally as a hotspot for wildlife conservation, the Chihuahuan Desert surrounding El Paso is one of the most biologically diverse eco-regions in North America.   The El Paso Zoo plans to open a major Chihuahuan Desert exhibit in 2019 that will play a major role in helping the Zoo accomplish its mission of celebrating the value of animals and natural resources and in creating opportunities for people to rediscover their connection to nature.  The $10 million signature project will replace approximately 20 percent of the Zoo’s exhibits.

The Chihuahuan Desert experience will highlight the flora and fauna of the region.   The exhibit will include an arroyo helping people to better understand one of the desert’s important naturally occurring environmental features.  A new classroom with viewing windows looking into endangered Mexican wolf and Thick-billed Parrot exhibits will help Education Specialists present engaging programs for school groups.  There will also be new exhibits for prairie dogs, desert birds, bolson tortoises, jaguars and endangered peninsular pronghorns.   An abandoned old ranch house exhibit will be home to smaller animals of the desert that have moved inside.  Just outside the house there will be a family of coatis, also called coatimundis.  Coatis are very rare in the northern Chihuahuan Desert and are the only carnivore in the Western Hemisphere that lives in groups made up of four to 25 individuals.

A mountain exhibit surrounded by a grassland zone will be home to big cats like the jaguar and mountain lion.   Natural landscapes featuring common plants of Chihuahuan Desert habitats will help to tell the story of how wildlife and people have adapted to this arid region.  Habitat zones will include creosote, grasslands, pinyon-juniper woodlands and Madrean woodland.

The Chihuahuan Desert covers the surface of our planet for nearly 400,000 square miles. During the Pleistocene, not long after the last ice age, the climate changed dramatically in this part of North America. The ensuing aridity made way for a desert landscape.

According to the World Wildlife Fund “this magnificent desert landscape is threatened by population growth, poor water management, agricultural expansion, invasive species, illegal wildlife trade, and a lack of understanding about the desert’s ecological importance. The region’s watersheds are suffering from overuse, construction of dams, groundwater extraction, pollution, and the drying impacts of climate change.”

The greatest challenge we have today in protecting the Chihuahuan Desert is to find ways to encourage people who live in the region to value the desert as an important part of their quality of life and as a natural resource important to their own survival.  The new Chihuahuan Desert exhibit at the El Paso Zoo will help people of all ages connect with this natural resource with great opportunities to observe desert wildlife and plant species up close with appealing interpretive graphics.

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