|Kakadu National Park|
|IUCN Category II (National Park)|
|Area:||19,804 km² (7,646 sq mi)|
|Visitation:||240,000 (in 1990)|
|Managing authorities:||Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts
Aboriginal traditional land owners (the Gun-djeihmi, Kunwinjku and Jawoyn peoples)
|Official site:||Kakadu National Park|
Kakadu National Park is in the Northern Territory of Australia, 171 kilometers (106 mi) east of Darwin. Located within the Alligator Rivers Region, it covers an area of 1,980,400 ha (4,894,000 acres), extending nearly 200 km (125 mi) from north to south and over 100 km (62 mi) from east to west. It is the size of Israel, about one-third the size of Tasmania, or nearly half the size of Switzerland.
Kakadu's wetlands are listed under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention) for their outstanding ecological, botanical, zoological and hydrological features. In addition, it has received designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for both outstanding cultural and natural universal values and importance.
The park's diverse environments provide habitat for an astonishing array of rare or endemic species of plants and animals. In addition to its natural beauty, variety of landforms, and sweeping and diverse landscapes, the park is filled with thousands of cave paintings, rock carvings, and archaeological sites which record an ancient way of life. The park is extremely important to the Aboriginal people, many of whom live in communities within the park. They live in their ancestral homeland, among their ancestors' records of interaction with the environment over tens of thousands of years.
The Park was established at a time when interest was high in the establishment of national parks for conservation as well as in recognizing the land interests of Aboriginal people. Australia has done well in preserving this area of the nation, honoring the historical roots and records of the indigenous people.
|Kakadu National Park*|
|UNESCO World Heritage Site|
|Criteria||i, vi, vii, ix, x|
|Inscription||1981 (5th Session)|
|* Name as inscribed on World Heritage List.
** Region as classified by UNESCO.
Kakadu National Park was established at a time when the Australian peoples' interest was high in the establishment of national parks for conservation as well as in recognizing the land interests of Aboriginal people. A national park in the Alligator River region was proposed as early as 1965, but it was not until 1978 that the government was able to acquire the titles over various tracts of land that now constitute Kakadu National Park.
The Park was declared in three stages between 1979 and 1991. Its establishment was begun under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act of 1975 (NPWC Act), which was replaced by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) of 1999 (commenced July 16, 2000). It retains its national park status under the EPBC Act.
Approximately half of the land in Kakadu National Park is Aboriginal land under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976 and most of the remaining land is currently under claim by Aboriginal people. The areas of the Park that are owned by Aborigines are leased by the traditional owners to the Director of National Parks for park management. The remaining area is Commonwealth land vested under the Director of National Parks.
The Aboriginal traditional owners of the Park are descendants of various clan groups from the Kakadu area. Their lifestyle has changed in recent history, but their traditional customs and beliefs remain very important and are respected by park management. About 500 Aboriginal people live in the Park, many of whom are traditional owners.
The name Kakadu comes from the mispronunciation of "Gagudju" which is the name of an Aboriginal language spoken in the northern part of the Park. Kakadu is ecologically and biologically diverse. The main natural features protected within the Park include:
There are six main landforms in Kakadu National Park: the Arnhem Land plateau and escarpment complex, known as the stone country; the outliers; the lowlands; the southern hills and basins; the floodplains; and the tidal flats. Each landform has its own range of habitats. Kakadu’s varied landscapes and the habitats they contain are features that contributed to its listing as a World Heritage Area.
It is believed that 140 million years ago, much of Kakadu was under a shallow sea. The prominent escarpment wall formed sea cliffs and the Arnhem Land plateau formed a flat land above the sea. Today the escarpment, which rises to 330 meters (1083 ft) above the plains, extends over 500 kilometers (310 miles) along the eastern side of the Park and into Arnhem Land. It varies from vertical cliffs in the Jim Jim Falls area to stepped cliffs and isolated outliers in the north.
The rock platforms of the plateau are dissected by a network of chasms and gorges. The top of the plateau is a harsh, dry place from which water drains away quickly. In most areas soil is scarce. The small patches of soil that are found consist mostly of coarse sand and leaf litter trapped in rock fissures or shallow depressions. Sparsely distributed pockets of woodland and open forest have developed on these coarse soils.
Along the escarpment, creeks have etched deep incisions to form gorges in which tall monsoon forests have developed. Water seeping from rock walls and the deep alluvial soils provide an important micro-environment for plants and animals. Many animals rely on these areas for refuge during the drier months. The dominant plant species is Allosyncarpia ternata, a large, hardy evergreen that is restricted to the stone country of Kakadu and Arnhem Land region.
The outliers are essentially pieces of the Arnhem Land plateau that have become separated from the plateau complex by erosion. They were islands in the ancient seas that once covered much of Kakadu. The gently undulating lowland plains stretch over much of the Top End. These lowlands comprise nearly 70 percent of the Park. The soils are shallow and often overlie extensive sheets of laterite (ironstone) and a thick profile of strongly leached rocks.
During the wet season, water carried down from the Arnhem Land plateau often overflows from creeks and rivers onto nearby floodplains. Nutrient-rich soils along with an abundance of water and sunlight make the floodplains an area of prolific plant and animal life. During the dry season the water recedes into rivers, creeks and isolated waterholes or billabongs. Kakadu’s wetlands are listed under the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (the Ramsar Convention) for their outstanding ecological, botanical, zoological, and hydrological features.
The southern hills and basins cover a large area in the south of the Park, including the headwaters of the South Alligator River. Rocks here have been exposed from beneath the retreating Arnhem escarpment; they are of volcanic origin and are extremely old (2,500 million years). This landform is characterized by rugged strike ridges separated by alluvial flats.
Kakadu’s coast and the creeks and river systems under tidal influence (extending about 100 kilometers inland) make up this landform. The shape of the estuaries and tidal flats varies considerably from the dry season to the wet season. During the dry season tidal action deposits silt along the river beds and banks. During the wet season the river beds are eroded by the floodwaters and large quantities of fresh and saline water flow out across the tidal flats, where silt is deposited. Large silt loads are also carried out to sea, some of the silt being deposited as a nutrient rich layer on the sea floor, contributing to the muddy waters that characterize Kakadu’s coastline.
The estuaries and tidal flats are home to an array of plants and animals adapted to living in the oxygen-deficient saline mud. The dominant habitats are mangrove swamps and samphire flats. Where freshwater springs occur along the coasts and river banks, isolated pockets of coastal monsoon rainforests form.
Kakadu's flora is among the richest in northern Australia, with more than 1,700 plant species recorded, which is a result of the Park's geological, landform, and habitat diversity. Kakadu is also considered to be one of the most weed free national parks in the world.
The distinctly different geographical areas of Kakadu have their own specialized flora. The environment referred to as "the Stone Country" features "resurrection grasses" that are able to cope with extreme heat and long dry spells followed by periods of torrential rain. Monsoon forests often develop in the cool moist gorges dissecting the stone country. The southern hills and basins support a number of plants that are only found in Kakadu such as the Eucalyptus koolpinensis found near Jarrangbarnmi (Koolpin Gorge). Lowland areas form a large proportion of Kakadu National Park and are mainly covered in eucalypt dominated open woodland with the ground layer consisting of a large range of grasses including spear grass, sedges, and wildflowers.
The floodplains, which are inundated for several months each year, feature sedges such as spike rush as well patches of freshwater mangroves (itchy tree), pandanus and paper bark trees (Melaleuca). Varieties of water lilies, such as the blue, yellow and white snowflake, are commonly found in these areas. Estuaries and tidal flats are populated with varieties of mangroves (39 of the 47 Northern Territory species of mangrove occur in Kakadu) that are important for stabilizing the coastline, serving as feeding and breeding grounds for numerous fish species including the barramundi.
On the tidal flats behind the mangroves, hardy succulents (samphire), grasses and sedges grow. Isolated pockets of monsoon forest grow along the coast and river banks. These forests contain several impressive trees, among them the banyan fig, which can be recognized by its large, spreading aerial roots, and the kapok tree, which has a spiny trunk, large, waxy red flowers, and pods full of cotton-like material.
The diverse environments of Kakadu National Park support an astonishing array of animals, a number of which have adapted to particular habitats. Some animals in the Park are rare, endangered, vulnerable or endemic. Responding to the extreme weather conditions experienced in the Park, many animals are active only at particular times of the day or night or at particular times of the year.
About 60 mammal species—marsupials and placental mammals—have been recorded in the Park. Most of them inhabit the open forest and woodlands and are nocturnal, making it difficult to see them. Others, such as wallabies and kangaroos (macropods), are active in the cooler parts of the day and are easier to see. However, recent surveys have revealed a disturbing decline of nearly all mammal species throughout Kakadu, including once common and widespread species such as northern quolls.
Kakadu’s many habitats support more than 280 species of birds, or about one-third of Australia’s bird species. Some birds range over a number of habitats, but many are found in only one environment.
To date, 117 species of reptiles have been recorded in Kakadu. Being cold blooded, these animals rely on heat from an external source such as the sun to regulate their body temperature. This is not to say that reptiles are active only during the day; in fact, few snakes can withstand Kakadu’s midday heat and most are active at night.
Two species of crocodile occur in Kakadu: The Freshwater Crocodile (Crocodylus johnstonii) and the Estuarine, or Saltwater Crocodile (C. porosus). Freshwater Crocodiles are easily identified by their narrow snout and a single row of four large boney lumps called "scutes" immediately behind the head. Estuarine Crocodiles do not have these scutes and their snout is broader. The maximum size for a "freshie" is 3 meters (10 ft), whereas a "saltie" can exceed 6 meters (20 ft).
Kakadu’s 25 frog species are extremely well adapted to the region’s climatic extremes. Many remain dormant during rainless times. With the onset of the wet season, when the billabongs and swamps begin to fill with water, the night air is filled with the sounds of frogs such as the northern bullfrog and the marbled frog. As the water builds up, frogs and tadpoles have an abundance of food, such as algae, vegetation, insects, dragonfly nymphs, and other tadpoles. Not all of Kakadu’s frogs are found in the wetlands: many live in the lowland forests.
Fifty-three species of freshwater fish have been recorded in Kakadu’s waterways; eight of them have a restricted distribution. In the Magela Creek system alone, 32 species have been found. In comparison, the Murray–Darling river system, the most extensive in Australia, now supports only 27 native fish species. Although introduced fish have been found in most Australian waterways, none have been recorded in the Park.
Despite the fact that Kakadu supports more than 10,000 species of insect, these creatures are often overlooked by visitors. Among the insect groups are grasshoppers, beetles, flies, termites, butterflies and moths, bees, wasps, ants, dragonflies and damselflies, caddis flies, non-biting midges, and mayflies. The great variety of insects is a result of the varied habitats and relatively high temperatures throughout the year.
Perhaps the most striking insect-created features in the Park are the termite mounds. The mounds in the southern part of the Park are particularly large and impressive. Leichhardt’s grasshopper, in colors of orange, blue and black, is perhaps the most spectacular insect found in Kakadu. It is also found on the Arnhem Land plateau and in Gregory National Park.
Kakadu is located in the tropics, between 12° and 14° south of the Equator. The climate is monsoonal, characterized by two main seasons: the dry season and the rain season. The ‘build up’ describes the transition between the dry and the rain. During the dry season (from April/May to September), dry southerly and easterly trade winds predominate. Humidity is relatively low and rain is unusual. At Jabiru, the average maximum temperature for June-July is 32°C (90°F). During the "build up" (October to December) conditions can be extremely uncomfortable with high temperatures and high humidity. However, "build up" storms are impressive and lightning strikes are frequent. The Top End of Australia records more lightning strikes per year than any other place on earth. At Jabiru the average maximum temperature for October is 37.5°C (100°F).
The rain season (January to March/April) is characterized by warm temperatures and, as one would expect, rain. Most of the rain is associated with monsoonal troughs formed over Southeast Asia, although occasionally tropical cyclones produce intense heavy rain over localized areas. At Jabiru the average maximum temperature for January is 33°C (91°F). Annual rainfall in Kakadu National Park ranges from 1,565 mm in Jabiru to 1,300 mm in the Mary River region.
Most non-Aboriginal people only refer to the rainy and dry seasons, but Aboriginals Bininj/Mungguy identify as many as six seasons in the Kakadu region:
The art sites of Ubirr, Nourlangie and Nanguluwur are internationally recognized as outstanding examples of Aboriginal rock art. These sites are found in rocky outcrops that have afforded shelter to Aboriginal inhabitants for thousands of years. The painting in these rock shelters were done for various reasons:
Ubirr is a group of rock outcrops in the northeast of the Park, on the edge of the Nadab floodplain. There several large rock overhangs that would have provided excellent shelter to Aboriginal people over thousands of years. Ubirr’s proximity to the East Alligator River and Nadab floodplains means that food would have been abundant, which is reflected in much of the rock art here. Animals depicted in the main gallery include Barramundi, Catfish, Mullet, Goanna, Snake-necked Turtle, Pig-nosed Turtle, Rock-haunting Ringtail Possum, and Wallaby.
There are also images of the Rainbow Serpent said to have created much of the landscape as well as mischievous Mimi spirits and the story of the Namarrgarn Sisters. Many stories connected to Aboriginal rock are highly complex and linked to other stories. Often the true meanings have been lost, but all have a purpose; to serve as a lesson or a warning to the young or to those passing through the area.
Nourlangie is located in an outlying formation of the Arnhem Land Escarpment. There are a number of shelters within this large outcrop linked by paths and stairways. The shelters contain several impressive paintings that deal with creation ancestors. The stories connected to these artworks are known only to certain Aboriginal people and remain secret.
Anbangbang Billabong lies in the shadow of Nourlangie Rock and is inhabited by a wide range of wildlife which would have sustained traditional Aboriginal people well.
Nanguluwur is a small art site, near Nourlangie, which displays several rock art styles. These include hand stencils, dynamic figures in large head-dresses carrying spears and boomerangs, representations of Namandi spirits and mythical figures, including Alkajko, a female spirit with four arms and horn-like protuberances. There is also an example of "contact art" depicting a two-masted sailing ship with anchor chain and a dinghy trailing behind.
The Park is proclaimed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act) and is managed through a joint management arrangement between the Aboriginal traditional owners and the Director of National Parks. The Director manages Commonwealth national parks through Parks Australia, which is a part of the Department of the Environment and Water Resources. Title to Aboriginal land in the Park is held by Aboriginal land trusts who have leased their land to the Director of National Parks. Traditional owners have also expected that having their land managed as a national park would assist them in looking after their land in the face of growing and competing pressures.
The Kakadu Board of Management, which has an Aboriginal majority (ten out of fifteen members), representing the Aboriginal traditional owners of land in the Park, was established in 1989. The Board determines policy for managing the Park and is responsible, along with the Director, for preparing plans of management for the Park. The Plan of Management is the main policy document for the Park and strives to balance strategic or long-term goals and tactical or day to day goals. Day to day management of Kakadu is carried out by people employed by Parks Australia, which is a branch of the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment and Water Resources. Approximately one-third of the staff in Kakadu are Aboriginal people.
Fire is part of the landscape of Kakadu as the Park contains large areas of woodland and grassy plains that are subject to long periods of dry hot weather. The flora of the region has adapted to frequent fires. Fires in northern Australia are less threatening than in southern Australia as many of the trees are largely fire resistant while other plants simply regenerate very quickly.
Controlled burning is practiced by the national park in consultation with traditional owners who have used fire as a land management tool for thousands of years. Fire is an important hunting tool for Aboriginal people; used to flush out prey. The other benefit is that once the fire has gone through an area the tender shoots of the fast regenerating grasses attract wallabies into a clearly defined area. Birds of prey such as Whistling Kites also rely on fire to flush out small animals, and are usually found in large numbers circling a fire front. Other species such as white-throated grasswrens have declined due to the large number of fires. Aboriginal people believe that fire is necessary to "clean up" the landscape, with many small fires being preferable to one large fire.
Kakadu National Park is a major tourist attraction in Australia’s north. Its dramatic landscape, aboriginal cultural significance and diverse and abundant wildlife draw visitors, as do the many beautiful waterfalls and gorges such as Maguk, Gunlom, Twin Falls, and Jim Jim Falls.
The park has some of the best examples of Aboriginal rock art in the country. The sites of Nourlangie and Ubirr are among the most visited locations in the Park. It is possible to view some of Kakadu’s diverse wildlife at places like Yellow Water Billabong, Cooinda on board a wildlife cruise, or at Mamukala Wetlands or Anbangbang Billabong. The Kakadu region is popular for birdwatching, with approximately 30 percent of Australia’s bird species located there.
Large saltwater crocodiles are also commonplace, especially at Yellow Water and East Alligator River, and are a tourist draw. Recreational fishing is popular; the most popular locations are Yellow Water, the South Alligator and the East Alligator River, with the main target species being Barramundi.
Many of the Park’s sites are accessible by standard two-wheel-drive vehicles, but the ruggedness of areas like Twin and Jim Jim Falls and Gunlom require four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Indigenous people are believed to have occupied the Kakadu area some 50,000 years ago. The National Park is renowned for the richness of its ancient cultural sites; there are more than 5,000 recorded art sites illustrating Aboriginal culture over thousands of years. Archaeological excavations have uncovered some 5,000 rock art sites, some of which are up to 20,000 years old. Archaeologists believe that there may be as many as 15,000 sites within the park's boundaries. The history of the area which has become Kakadu National Park and the history of Australia's Aboriginal people are closely intertwined.
Macassan trepangers from the southwest corner of Sulawesi visited the coast of northern Australia for hundreds of years to fish for trepang (also known as sea cucumber or "sandfish"), a marine invertebrate prized for its culinary and medicinal values in Chinese markets. Aboriginal people were involved in harvesting and processing the trepang, and in collecting and exchanging the other goods. These visits have left their mark on the people of Northern Australia—in language, art, economy, and even genetics in the descendants of both Macassan and Australian ancestors that are now found on both sides of the Arafura and Banda Seas. Among the artifacts from archaeological digs in the Park are glass and metal fragments believed to have come from the Macassans.
The first surviving written account of non-Aboriginal explorers of Australia’s north coast comes from the Dutch, though the Chinese, Malays and Portuguese all claim to have been there first. In 1623, Jan Carstenz made his way west across the Gulf of Carpentaria to what is believed to be Groote Eylandt. Abel Tasman is the next documented explorer to visit this part of the coast in 1644. He was the first person to record European contact with Aboriginal people; others soon followed.
The British attempted a number of settlements on the northern Australian coast in the early part of the nineteenth century. These were all subsequently abandoned for a variety of reasons, such as lack of water and fresh food, disease, and isolation.
Water Buffalo had a big influence on the Kakadu region. By the 1880s, the number of buffaloes released from early settlements had increased to such an extent that commercial harvesting of hides and horns was economically viable.
The industry began on the Adelaide River, close to Darwin, and moved east to the Mary River and Alligator Rivers regions. Most of the buffalo hunting and skin curing was done in the dry season, between June and September, when buffaloes congregated around the remaining billabongs. During the wet season hunting ceased because the ground was too muddy to pursue buffalo and the harvested hides would rot. The buffalo-hunting industry became an important employer of Aboriginal people during the dry-season months.
Missionaries had a large influence on the Aboriginal people of the Alligator Rivers region, many of whom lived and were schooled at missions in their youth. Two missions were set up in the region in the early part of the century. Kapalga Native Industrial Mission was established near the South Alligator River in 1899, but lasted only four years. The Oenpelli Mission began in 1925, when the Church of England Missionary Society accepted an offer from the Northern Territory Administration to take over the area, which had been operated as a dairy farm. The Oenpelli Mission operated for 50 years.
The pastoral industry made a cautious start in the Top End. Pastoral leases in the Kakadu area were progressively abandoned from 1889, because the Victoria River and the Barkly Tablelands proved to be better pastoral regions.
In southern Kakadu, much of Goodparla and Gimbat was claimed in the mid-1870s by three pastoralists, Roderick, Travers, and Sergison. The leases were subsequently passed on to a series of owners, all of whom proved unable to succeed. In 1987, both stations were acquired by the Commonwealth and incorporated within Kakadu National Park.
A sawmill at Nourlangie Camp was begun by Chinese operators, probably before World War I, to mill stands of cypress pine in the area. After World War II a number of small-scale ventures, including dingo shooting and trapping, brumby shooting, crocodile shooting, tourism and forestry, began.
Nourlangie Camp was again the site of a sawmill in the 1950s, until the local stands of cypress pine were exhausted. In 1958 it was converted into a safari camp for tourists. Soon after, a similar camp was begun at Patonga and at Muirella Park. Clients were flown in for recreational buffalo and crocodile hunting and fishing.
Crocodile hunters often made use of the bush skills of Aboriginal people, though they became less involved in commercial hunting once the technique of spotlight shooting at night developed. Freshwater Crocodiles have been protected by law since 1964 and Saltwater Crocodiles since 1971.
The first mineral discoveries in the Top End were associated with the construction of the Overland Telegraph line between 1870 and 1872, in the Pine Creek–Adelaide River area. A series of short mining booms followed. The construction of the North Australia Railway line gave more permanency to the mining camps, and places such as Burrundie and Pine Creek became permanent settlements. Small-scale gold mining began at Imarlkba, near Barramundi Creek, and Mundogie Hill in the 1920s and at Moline, south of what is now the Park, in the 1930s.
In 1953, uranium was discovered along the headwaters of the South Alligator River valley. Thirteen small but rich uranium mines operated in the following decade, at their peak in 1957, employing over 150 workers.
In 1969 large uranium deposits were discovered at Ranger, Jabiluka, and Koongarra. Following receipt of a formal proposal to develop the Ranger site, the Commonwealth Government initiated an inquiry into land use in the Alligator Rivers region. Agreement to mine was reached between the Commonwealth of Australia and the Northern Land Council which represented the traditional Aboriginal land owners. In 1980, the Ranger Uranium Mine was completed.
The site of the Ranger mine and the adjacent Jabiluka area are not part Kakadu National Park, but are completely surrounded by it, as they were specifically excluded when the park was established.
This mining, and the presence of uranium in Kakadu have come under controversy, due to the widespread publicity regarding the potential danger of nuclear power and uranium mining in general. The main long-term environmental impact of uranium mining is that posed by the large volumes of tailings, mining waste in the form of particularized sand, which remain on the minesite. Guidelines from the International Atomic Energy Agency describe the project area as particularly unsuitable for tailings storage. Contrary to recommendations, neither the tailings dam nor the tailings dump are isolated by lining, or any other significant physical barrier. As a result, the mine site continues to suffer from seepage from these tailings-stores of contaminated water which is juggled between the ponds and the tailings dumps.
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