Introduction - Wetlands


Yellow Water wetlands, Kakadu National Park (Michael Michie)

Some of the most important tropical wetlands in the world are found in the Top End of Australia. These include the Ord, Finnis, Victoria, Mary, Alligator, Mitchell and Gilbert Rivers, all of which have extensive deltas and floodplains. Melaleuca forest, meadows, sedgelands, billabongs and mudflats provide a home for crocodiles, a huge range of water birds and an abundance of aquatic life. (Australian Nature Conservation Agency)

Wetland and river systems of the Top End

The northern monsoonal floodplains, or wetlands, of the Top End of the Northern Territory are shaped by the extremes of weather brought about by the annual cycle of the monsoon rains that control the behaviour of all living things in the region. The transformation of the different wetland habitats during each wet season brings about dramatic changes in the animal and plant populations and they have adapted to continual change.

Different types of wetlands are found in Australia and an overview of their ecology gives examples of how plants and animals relate to each other and to the physical conditions of their environment. Wetlands are a heritage to be kept intact for future generations; one species becoming extinct or one stream becoming polluted would devalue the whole.

Mangroves are also an important part of the wetlands systems of the Northern Territory. Extensive mangrove forests line the coastline and estuaries of the Top End. During the wet season as the major rivers flood, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish between freshwater and marine wetlands because of the influx of water. Already established as a major resource for coastal Northern Aboriginal clans, our understanding of mangroves as an integral part of the marine food chains is currently being established.

There are different types of habitats that make up a typical wetlands system in the Top End and this reinforces the notion of wetlands as being one large entity: a mosaic made up from smaller parts, each one significant in its own right.

The Top End wetlands have sustained human occupation for an estimated 60,000 years. The rock paintings in Kakadu National Park, which make up the oldest collection of art galleries in the world, record a culture closely associated with the land and all its creatures. Aboriginal people continue to use the resources of the wetlands in an annual cycle of journeying through their homeland ranges.

To what degree human interests and activities can be reconciled with the aims of conservation and heritage values needs to be explored through the various options open to society in managing wetlands.

Notes for teachers

The Activities that are included are primarily designed for senior students but can be adapted for other students. The activities allow students to discover many of the concepts and ideas related to the wetlands environment for themselves. Both individual and group activities have been included, and these range from theoretical to practical. Some activities (e.g. discussion topics) will focus on specific areas of the text, whilst some will be major assignments spread over a period of time to allow for intensive research into the subject.

There is an array of reference material available and this unit can be used in association with these resources. Lists of useful resource materials are given with the associated activities or at the end (see References). Some active links have been included in the text.

Notes for tourist guides

While the activities were designed to be undertaken with senior students, you can explore them yourselves as a way of highlighting your own awareness and understanding of the wetlands. As noted, there are some reference materials (see References) which will enhance your understanding and that of your customers.

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