Kakadu National Park is located within the Alligator Rivers Region of the Northern Territory of Australia. It covers an area of 19,804 km2 (7,646 sq mi), extending nearly 200 kilometres from north to south and over 100 kilometres from east to west. It is the size of Slovenia, about one-third the size of Tasmania, or nearly half the size of Switzerland. The Ranger Uranium Mine, one of the most productive uranium mines in the world, is surrounded by the park.
Aboriginal people have occupied the Kakadu area continuously for at least 40,000 years. Kakadu National Park is renowned for the richness of its Aboriginal cultural sites. There are more than 5,000 recorded art sites illustrating Aboriginal culture over thousands of years. The archaeological sites demonstrate Aboriginal occupation for at least 20,000 and possibly up to 40,000 years.
The cultural and natural values of Kakadu National Park were recognised internationally when the park was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This is an international register of properties that are recognised as having outstanding cultural or natural values of international significance. Kakadu was listed in three stages: stage 1 in 1981, stage 2 in 1987, and the entire park in 1992.
Approximately half of the land in Kakadu 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 Aboriginal people are leased by the traditional owners to the Director of National Parks to be managed as a national park. The remaining area is commonwealth land vested under the Director of National Parks. All of Kakadu is declared a national park under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
The Aboriginal traditional owners of the park are descendants of various clan groups from the Kakadu area and have longstanding affiliations with this country. Their lifestyle has changed in recent years, but their traditional customs and beliefs remain very important. About 500 Aboriginal people live in the park, many of them are traditional owners. All of Kakadu is jointly managed by Aboriginal traditional owners and the Australian Government’s Department of the Environment and Water Resources through a division known as Parks Australia. Park Management is directed by the Kakadu Board of Management.
Kakadu was established at a time when the Australian community was becoming more interested in the declaration of national parks for conservation and in recognising the land interests of Aboriginal people. A national park in the Alligator Rivers region was proposed as early as 1965, but took until 1978 for the Australian Government to make arrangements to acquire the titles over various tracts of land that now constitute Kakadu National Park.
Kakadu National Park was declared under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 (NPWC Act) in three stages between 1979 and 1991. The NPWC Act was replaced by the EPBC Act in 2000. The declaration of the park continues under the EPBC Act. Each stage of the park includes Aboriginal land under the Land Rights Act that is leased to the Director of National Parks or land that is subject to a claim to traditional ownership under the Land Rights Act. Most of the land that was to become part of Stage One of Kakadu was granted to the Kakadu Aboriginal land Trust under the Land Rights Act in August 1978 and, in November 1978, the Land Trust and the Director signed a lease for the land to be managed as a national park. Stage One of the park was declared on 5 April 1979.
Stage Two was declared on 28 February 1984. In March 1978, a claim was lodged under the Land Rights Act for the land included in Stage Two of Kakadu. The land claim was partly successful and, in 1986, three areas in the eastern part of Stage Two were granted to the Jabiluka Aboriginal Land Trust. A lease between the Land Trust and the Director of National parks was signed in March 1991.
In 1987, a land claim was lodged for the land in the former Goodparla and Gimbat pastoral that that were to be included in Stage Three of Kakadu. The other area to be included in Stage Three – the area known as the Gimbat Resumption and the Waterfall Creek Reserve – was later added to this land claim. The progressive declaration was due to the debate over whether mining should be allowed at Guratba (Coronation Hill) which is located in the middle of the area referred to as Sickness Country. The traditional owners’ wishes were ultimately respected and the Australian National Government decided that there would be no mining at Guratba. In 1996, the land in Stage Three, apart from the former Goodparla pastoral leases, was granted to the Gunlom Aboriginal Land Trust and leased to the Director of National Parks to continue being managed as part of Kakadu.
Kakadu is located in the tropics, between 12° and 14° south of the Equator. The climate is monsoonal, characterised by two main seasons: the dry season and the wet season. The ‘build up’ describes the transition between the dry and the wet. 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. 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. In fact, 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.
The wet season (January to March/April) is characterised 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 localised areas. At Jabiru, the average maximum temperature for January is 33 °C. Annual rainfall in Kakadu National Park ranges from 1,565 mm in Jabiru to 1,300 mm in the Mary River region.
Kakadu’s flora is among the richest in northern Australia with more than 1700 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 specialised 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 several endemic plants that are only found in Kakadu such as Eucalyptus koolpinensis 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 stabilising the coastline. Mangroves serve as feeding and breeding grounds for many 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 recognised 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.