Location and Values: Kakadu is Australia’s largest national park, and one of the largest in the world’s tropics. Located in the far north of the Northern Territory it is primarily an area of fire-maintained tropical savanna woodlands, but it also preserves an astonishing diversity of other Australian ecosystems from tidal mudflats and mangroves in the coastal areas to vast expanses of freshwater wetlands and seasonally flooded forests, as well as sheer rocky cliffs and dry plateau lands. The area has been occupied by aboriginal peoples for 40,000 years and there is a wealth of cave paintings, rock carvings and archaeological sites that record the skills and lifestyle of these people over the millennia. From an ecological viewpoint, the coastal wetlands and floodplains in the north of the park are particularly dynamic environments, shaped by changing sea levels and extensive annual flooding, and providing seasonal habitat for millions of waterbirds. Kakadu supports an exceptional number of plant and animal species, with over a third of Australia’s bird species, and a quarter of the continent’s mammals recorded in the park.
Conservation Status and Threats. According to IUCN’s Conservation Outlook Assessment (2017) the conservation status of Kakadu National Park is of ‘significant concern’. The exceptional values which are recognized by the inscription of Kakadu National Park on the World Heritage List are threatened by:
- Mining. Uranium mining has been one of the main long-term threats to Kakadu National Park, with three enclaves leased out to mining companies. One of these (the Ranger uranium mine) is due to close in 2021 but in the meantime its ore has to be transported through the park with the risk of radioactive contamination, and the safe storage of uranium tailings is an ongoing concern. A second lease (at Koongara) was terminated in 2011, and the land has now been incorporated into the park.
- Invasive alien species. Alien plants and animals are displacing native species and affecting park habitats. There are many invasive weeds, including the floating fern Salvinia, various invasive grasses and species such as Mimosa pigra, Delonix regia, and Crotalaria goreensis. The most harmful invasive animals are buffalo, feral pigs, cats and cane toads, and these species are thought to have been (partially) responsible for a decline in northern quoll and reptile populations.
- Fire. Although fire is a natural element of the floodplain and woodland ecosystem in Kakadu National Park, there has been an increase in the extent and intensity of late season wildfires which has resulted (amongst other things) in a decline in small mammal populations. In response to this, new fire management practices have been introduced in recent years, mimicking the ancient practices of controlled burning by the native Binninj/Mungguy people.
- Climate change. The impacts of climate change are not yet fully understood but more frequent and intense rainfall events have occurred in recent years with increased flooding of the river systems in Kakadu National Park. Changes have been observed in the delicate balance between salt and freshwater wetlands through saltwater intrusion. In the longer term, it is expected that climate change will result in (1) sea level rise, (2) the risk of increased fire frequency and intensity due to drought, (3) increased frequency of weather events such as storms, and (4) increased populations of alien species, including pathogens.
UNESCO Official Website
IUCN Conservation Outlook
UNEP-WCMC Site Description