Kakadu (12°04'S to14°00'S, 132°00'E to133°10'E) is a World Heritage Site that is a unique archaeological and ethnological reserve which has been inhabited continuously for 50,000 years covering almost the entire catchment of a major tropical monsoonal river system. It is a unique example of a complex of ecosystems, including tidal flats, floodplains, lowlands and plateaux, and provides a habitat for a wide range of rare and endemic species of plants and animals. In addition an immense range of cave paintings, rock carvings and archaeological sites record the skills and way of life of the region's inhabitants, from the hunter-gatherers of prehistoric times to the present Aboriginal inhabitants still living there provide an outstanding record of human interaction with the environment over tens of thousands of years.
Threats to the Site
Date and History of Establishment
- 1964: Woolwonga Aboriginal Reserve (50,500 hectares (ha)) established
- 1972: Alligator Rivers Wildlife Sanctuary and Protected Areas established (ca.200,000 ha)
- 1975: The National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act passed: the principal legal basis for the park
- 1979: Kakadu National Park, Stage I proclaimed, incorporating the above reserves
- 1980: The Alligator Rivers region entered on the Register of the National Estate; also entered were: Koolpin gorge (1986) and the southern third of the Park (1989)
- 1980: Stage I & parts of stage III declared a Ramsar Wetland of International Importance
- 1984: Stage II proclaimed; incorporated into the National Park 1985; declared a Ramsar site in 1989
- 1987: Stage III proclaimed, incorporating a conservation zone
1,980,400 ha (180 x 110 km). Ramsar sites: 683,000 ha.
The Kakadu Aboriginal Land Trust and Jabiluka Aboriginal Land Trust own about one-third of the land, but lease it to the Director of National Parks and Wildlife in whom the remaining area is vested The Jawoyn people have lodged a land claim under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act, 1976 over Stage III. But this will not affect the national park status of Stage III, and joint management like that in other Aboriginal land in the Park will be established (Australian National Parks & Wildlife Service, Department of the Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism & Territories). All designations exclude an enclave containing the Ranger and Jabiluka mining lease area.
Sea level to 520 meters (m).
The Park extends from coastal and riverine floodplains to lowland hills and basins some 160 km south, and from the dissected Arnhem Land plateau and sandstone escarpment in the east to the wooded Koolpinyah surface savanna 120 km west. It includes the entire watershed of the South Alligator River, also the East Alligator, West Alligator and Wildman Rivers. The western rim of the Arnhem Land plateau, with sheer and spectacular escarpments, waterfalls, overhangs and caves, is within the Park. The escarpment ranges in height from about 30 m to 330 m over some 500 km. It is formed by the relatively resistant quartz sandstone of the Middle Proterozoic Kombolgie Formation unconformably overlying less resistant rocks. Where these underlying rocks are weakened by erosion, the sandstone is undermined and eventually collapses. This has produced a landscape of intricate relief with numerous micro-habitats hosting a diverse biota and a large number of overhangs and caverns that house much of the Aboriginal rock art of the region.
Relative tectonic stability means that within Kakadu National Park there are very old rocks as well as modern landforms and because of its great age of over 2,000 million years, much of the area has deeply weathered landforms and soils that are leached and infertile. On the plateau the stripping away of most of the late Cretaceous rocks has produced a rugged landscape of resistant, flat-bedded quartzose sandstones, criss-crossed by weaker areas that have been deeply eroded into a maze of narrow valleys and gorges. The surface is mostly bare pavements and sandstone outcrops with a strongly leached sandy soil which is skeletal where present, seldom more than 150 centimeters (cm) deep, but there are pockets of deeper soil in gorges in the plateau which support rain forest communities with relict species. Deposits of uranium, gold, copper and tin are found on the site.
The south of the Park is mostly hills and basins, the hills forming a modern erosional surface of rocky strike ridges flanked by narrow talus slopes or pediments, separated from each other by alluvial flats of varying widths. The Koolpinyah surface is a series of gently undulating lowland plains from Darwin to the Arnhem land escarpment. These lowland and coastal riverine plains surround the tidal reaches of all the major river systems in the park with a mosaic of floodplains, lagoons and seasonal creeks. Some 147,000 ha may be flooded during the wet season. The plains are recent and still actively forming, with acidic easily eroded soils and are often flooded for four months of the year. Natural but easily broached levees protect the plains below from saltwater inundation. In addition to the four major landforms, Kakadu National Park contains approximately 473 square kilometers (km2) of coastal, intertidal and estuarine areas and two islands.
The tropical monsoonal climate, with marked wet and dry seasons, is the major factor determining the surface water hydrology, vegetation and, over time, the landforms of the region. Temperatures are high all year, with monthly average maxima varying from 33 degrees Celsius (°C) in July to 42°C in October. More than 90% of annual rainfall occurs in the wet season, between November and April, which is characterized by localized thunderstorms, monsoonal depressions that cause heavy rains, and tropical cyclones. Rainfall intensities in the region are among the highest in Australia. Humidity is highest from January to March, averaging 85%. May to September is a period of annual drought when relative humidity drops to an average of 57%. In general, mean annual rainfall decreases from the coast towards the interior, from 1,565 millimeters (mm) to about 1,100-1,200 mm in the south. In the wet season, the Park's rivers carry large amounts of water, and wide lowland areas are flooded. By the late dry season, flow ceases in the upper reaches, leaving a series of shallow billabongs in dry river beds.
The Alligator Rivers region which surrounds the Park is the most floristically diverse part of monsoonal northern Australia with around 1,600 recorded plant species, reflecting the variety of landforms and the associated plant habitats of the region. Over half the region is forest or open woodland but it includes savannas, plateau spinifex and outliers, riverine fringing forest, wetlands, floodplain sedgelands, monsoon forests, tidal, coastal, aquatic and marine habitats as well as the southern hills and basins. As a consequence of the area's intricate relief, there are also numerous micro-habitats, and the biota of the plateau is ecologically very diverse, containing a distinctive assemblage of species, many of restricted range. Of particular note is the flora of the sandstone formations of the western Arnhem Land escarpment, where some species are relict and many are endemic. Some 60 plant species in the Park are considered rare or threatened. One notable species is Cycas conferta (VU). A list of these is given in DASETT.
The vegetation can be classified into 13 broad categories, seven of which are dominated by a distinct species of eucalyptus. Other categories comprise: mangrove; samphire; lowland rain forest; paperbark swamp; seasonal floodplain and sandstone rain forest. These categories are described in detail in DASETT. The seven eucalyptus-dominated open-forest and woodland categories, typically with a tall (1-2 m) grassy understorey, are the dominant vegetation. 21 of Australia's 29 mangrove species grow along the tidal reaches of the major coastal river systems. Samphire, a sparse low chenopod shrubland, occurs on tidal salt flats, typically of fine clay, between mangroves and the supratidal fringe. Lowland rain forests occur as small habitat pockets with rare tropical flora in Eucalyptus, Barringtonia or Melaleuca (paperbark) dominated vegetation of two types: rain forest associated with springs and seepages; and rain forest on freely draining land. Paperbark swamp, dominated by one or more tall Melaleuca species, covers wide areas of the seasonal freshwater floodplains. The vegetation of these plains changes more or less continuously throughout the wet-dry cycle, from permanent open water communities, invaded by the waterweed Salvinia molesta, which, with the giant sensitive plant Mimosa pigra, is rampant, and to ephemeral communities of herbs, grasses and sedges associated with seasonally flooded, cracking clay soils that dry out completely in the dry season when the southern hills become a refuge for the Park's fauna.
The scientific and conservation value of the fauna of the Park is of national and international significance. It is diverse, representative of a large area of northern Australia, and includes regional endemics. The 64 native mammal species known from the park comprise slightly more than a quarter of the total number of known terrestrial mammal species in Australia, and include 26 of the 65 species of Australian bats. Mammals globally threatened include dugong Dugong dugon (VU), ghost bat Macroderma gigas (VU), orange leafnosed bat Rhinonicteris aurantia (VU), false water rat Xeromys myoides (VU) and goldenbacked tree rat Mesembriomys macrurus (VU). Two other threatened mammals are the narbalek Petrogale concinna and the rock ringtail possum Pseudocheirus dahli.
Reptile species total 128, comprising two crocodile species, three species of sea turtle, 77 lizard species (15 species of gecko, four legless lizards, 10 dragons, 11 monitors and 37 species of skink) and 39 species of snake. Those globally threatened include loggerhead turtle Caretta caretta (EN), green turtle Chelonia mydas (EN), hawksbill turtle Eretmochelys imbricata (EN), olive Ridley turtle Lepidochelys olivacea (EN) and pignosed turtle Carettochelys insculpta (VU). There are two species of crocodile, estuarine Crocodylus porosus and freshwater C.johnstoni. 55 species of freshwater fish make the Park Australia's richest in these fish. Aquatic escarpment habitats are important dry season refuges for freshwater fish, including several species with restricted distributions. The extremely rich avifauna of 274 species, includes 33% of species found in Australia and in the autumn up to one million waterbirds of 60 species gather. Red goshawk Erythrotriorchis radiatus (EN) and Gouldian finch Chloebia gouldiae (EN), also the threatened hooded parrot Psephotus dissimilis occur within the region.
The 1986 Plan of Management identified 3% of mammal species, 10% of birds, 9% of reptiles and 4% of amphibians occurring in the park as having a small range, high habitat specificity and low population density, and should generally be considered rare. A further 21 notable species have since been identified on the basis of the species' rarity, restricted range, taxonomic interest, uncertain or declining range or substantial range extension. A list of species of particular conservation importance is given in ANPWS.
Aboriginal people have occupied this landscape as traveling hunter-gatherers for 50,000 years, endowing it with sacred attributes which are still respected. Excavated sites have revealed evidence of the earliest human settlement in Australia, the world's oldest evidence of edge-ground axes and pieces of ochre used for painting 25,000 years old. The Park contains many sacred sites of religious significance, some 1,000 archaeological sites of Aboriginal culture and an estimated 15,000 rock art sites in a number of styles in richly decorated caves concentrated along the Arnhem Land escarpment, some dating back 18,000 years recording animal species no longer present. European discovery was by the Dutch in 1623 and1644. British exploration reached the area in 1818 and 1824, and in 1880 there was a local gold rush. Persecution and forced assimilation of the Aboriginal people followed until the constitutional referendum of 1967.
Local Human Population
The Park’s Plan of Management refers to Australians of European origin by two terms from the main local languages: Balanda or Mam, and the Aboriginals, mainly of the Gundjeihmi/Mayali, Jawoyn and Kunwinjku tribes, as Bininj or Mungguy. The latter, approximately 500 people of about 16 clans, live in about ten locations in the park. These also include the Mirrar traditional owners and other Aboriginals with recognized social and traditional attachments to the area who may stay, and where necessary, establish new living areas and exercise their rights to traditional uses. This recognition of Aboriginal title to land dates back to a 1973 commission of inquiry into their land rights in the Northern Territory in relation to the lease on the Ranger uranium mine. The land is leased by the Aboriginal’s Gagadju Association to the government. In the past, European enterprises in the area have also sometimes depended on Aboriginals’ knowledge of the country, which has affected the relationship. It was also these developers who introduced water buffalo Bubalus bubalis to the region. The small industrial town of Jabiru within the park was built by Energy Resources of Australia, now owned by the Rio Tinto Corporation, as a closed town to service the uranium mines. It has a population of about 1,480 and was to be limited, but the added incentive of tourism has created pressure to expand it.
Visitors and Visitor Facilities
Tourism in Kakadu is important to the region’s economy and is a major management issue. Many visitors including those from overseas are attracted by the Aboriginal culture and art. Visitor numbers, estimated at 47,000 in 1982 were 250,000 in 2002. Since 1988 all commercial tours operating within the Park are required to obtain the approval of the Park Director. A number of airstrips suitable for light planes are available both inside and outside the park. A range of accommodation is available within the Park and there are a number of camp sites and picnic areas.
Scientific Research and Facilities
Research, surveys, monitoring and rehabilitation programs in the park have focused on both the natural and cultural heritages: on wildlife, vegetation, water quality, fire, problem weeds and feral animals; rock art and archaeological sites, Aboriginal knowledge, oral history, use of plants and satisfaction as residents; visitor use and impacts; and park information systems. The establishment of a ‘Keeping Place’ for Aboriginal artifacts returned from museums, some of ritual importance, is being researched. Comprehensive monitoring is still discovering new species and mapping of the plant communities most vulnerable to fire is also important. Research in the Park is carried out by several agencies: the Australian National Parks & Wildlife Service and the Commonwealth Scientific & Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) though this no longer runs the 67,000 ha Kapalga Research Station which has been a major resource for research into the wet/dry tropics of Northern Australia. The Office of the Supervising Scientist also operates a research station in the park, monitoring especially pollution. Research projects funded by ANPWS are listed in the Plan of Management.
The Park is listed on the World Heritage List for both natural and cultural values. It covers almost the entire catchment of a major tropical monsoonal river system. With its large size, wide range of ecosystems, of habitats with rare and threatened biota, its beauty and ancient but living culture, it is recognized as Australia's most significant national park. The numerous cave paintings, rock carvings and archaeological sites which record the skills and way of life of the region's inhabitants, are a unique artistic achievement, which provide an outstanding record of continuing Aboriginal interaction with the environment over 50,000 years.
In 1993 the Native Title Act recognized that native title could coexist with other rights on the same land. In 2000 the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act recognized the role of Aboriginal sustainable practices. The result in Kakadu has been the acceptance of the local people as participants in the governing process through five associations and their representatives The National Parks and Wildlife Service is well aware that Kakadu's unusual status as a cultural as well as a natural heritage site rests on its ancient Aboriginal culture which is therefore respected within the Park. Its management of the Park is overseen by the Director of National Parks and Wildlife and the Kakadu Board of Management, established in 1989, and carried out by staff of the Parks and Wildlife Service with officers seconded from the Conservation Commission of the Northern Territory and the Northern Land Council. Ten of the fourteen members of the Kakadu Board of Management are Aboriginal people nominated by the traditional owners of Park lands, to ensure that the Service is aware of Aboriginal perspectives on park planning and management, and expects them to participate in them. The native communities' interest in having their land managed with and by the Park Service is to preserve it in the face of outside and competing pressures. This regime of joint management is an admired model both at home and abroad, though publicly challenged for its limits on tourism by the Northern Territory government.
The fourth five year Plan of Management started in 1997, continuing the consolidation of the Park management, with increased programs for monitoring its resources. The Park is divided into four zones of increasing sensitivity with appropriate policies for each. Site-specific plans for a number of visitor destinations in the Park provide for responsible management. Active management ensures that minimal damage is caused by weeds, feral animals, fire, tourism and other human uses such as mining, especially in the southeast, and over 500 roadside gravel extraction pits which are being rehabilitated. Weed control continues with a successful Mimosa pigra control program. The Commonwealth Government also supports a program outside the Park to prevent invasion from nearby infestations. Management of Salvinia molesta is high priority. There has been a program to eradicate feral water buffalo as part of the national Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Programme. The remaining animals are tracked using 'Judas cows' carrying transmitter collars.
The main cause of environmental degradation in the past has been the water buffalo, which damaged the native vegetation and caused erosion. However, these have been reduced from 20,000 in 1988 to less than 250 and this population is being controlled. Feral pigs, horses and donkeys are also targeted, and combating invasion by the poisonous cane toad has recently become necessary. The two weeds, giant sensitive plant Mimosa pigra and the waterweed Salvinia molesta, are currently of great concern because they can easily come to dominate wetland areas. Much effort have been made to eradicate Mimosa pigra since it first appeared in the Park in 1984, a full-time team of six staff being employed for this purpose alone, using manual and herbicidal techniques. As a consequence, Kakadu, with no untreated occurrences of adult plants known in the Park, is one of the few estuarine river systems in the Northern Territory that is effectively free of the weed, but there is a constant threat of reinfestation. Salvinia molesta infestation has been so severe that biological control, using the Salvinia weevil Cyrtobagous salvinae and mechanical harvesting, have been attempted, and in 1989 the Magela Creek system in the north-east of the park was quarantined. A number of other weeds also cause concern and are subject to control programs.
Fire, although a major threat in the dry season, is an integral part of Australian ecosystems. Since 1979, a return to the traditional Aboriginal fire regime has been an objective of fire management. This creates a mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches which protects the area from the damaging hot fires used by European pastoralists. This is important in the traditional floodplain hunting areas of the natives who have tended to be excluded from consultation in the past. Research and monitoring of the effects of fire in the Park has been a continuing priority, especially to prevent it spreading outside the Park. The rock art is most seriously damaged by water flowing over the rock. These sites are also damaged by vegetation, mud-building wasps, termites, feral animals and vandalism by visitors (although the latter is rare). Water and feral animals cause most damage to archaeological sites.
Small-scale mining activities occurred in the South Alligator River Valley in the past. A program was undertaken to reduce the physical and radiological hazards of abandoned uranium mines, and rehabilitation of the old mining sites is being considered. As work on the old Ranger mine diminished, Energy Resources of Australia started construction in 1997 of an underground uranium mine with a surface mill at the Jabiluka uranium lease in an enclave within Kakadu National Park. The local Aborigines are strongly opposed to the mine and at least to 2001 were at an impasse with the government over its intention to permit operations. They were concerned over new leaks of contaminated water into local streams and over the potential impact of pollution from mine tailings, from surface stockpiling of uranium ore at Jabiluka and from ore to be moved for storage at the Ranger mine, on the water and ecology of the area. These include the possibility of the escape of radioactive materials, the lack of reporting and of baseline data on environmental parameters of the project area and the lack of information about the potential effects on any rare or endangered species. In early 2002 there were in fact four breaches by the mine operator, which led to heavy contamination by uranium waste, not immediately reported, of a creek used by traditional owners.
Concerns over the effects of the mine on cultural sites include testimony by the Aborigines that a proposed mine access road will cross an Aboriginal sacred site and that there are over 200 similar sites within the lease area, including burial sites, creation sites, living areas and art. The Office of the Supervising Scientist, established under the Environment Protection (Alligator Rivers Region) Act, 1978, is responsible for monitoring the effects of mining operations in the Alligator Rivers region. An independent investigation stated in 2000 that the mine would pose negligible effects on the area's health and ecology, but work was postponed to allow for an investigation of the effects on the culture. In 2002 a cultural heritage management workshop on this issue was held by ICOMOS Australia, the Gundjemi Aboriginal Corporation and Environment Australia.
Approximately 63 staff are employed, including traditional Aboriginal owners, rangers, seasonal rangers, scientists and support staff. Two staff are employed full-time to plan and supervise research and management of the cultural resources.
The Australian government made an annual allocation for Park operations and capital works. In 1990-91 approximately A$ 9 million (US$ 6.8 million) was allocated for this purpose. In 1990-1 approximately A$ 6.7 million (US$ 5.1 million) was allocated to the Office monitoring the effects of mining operations. For years, CSIRO spent over A$ 1 million on research in Kakadu each year. Royalties of about AD$5million a year are paid by the government to the Gagadju Association.
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