Wetlands Conservation 3: Heritage Values


Mamukala Wetlands, Kakadu National Park (Michael Michie)

The Australian Heritage Commission is a Commonwealth government statutory authority that identifies and promotes the conservation of the national estate. Wetlands are part of the National Estate because they can have: The National Estate is a term used to describe those heritage places in the natural and cultural environments that we as a nation have identified as worth keeping for present and future generations. These places have 'aesthetic, historic, scientific or social significance or other special value' (Australian Heritage Commission Act 1975). The register of the National Estate serves to alert all Australians, especially planners and decision makers, to those places which should be kept for future generations.

  • global and national importance as special ecosystems under threat

  • scientific significance

  • aesthetic values, recreational and social appeal

  • historic significance.

Global and national importance

Wetlands of the world are the concern of the Ramsar Convention that meets regularly to monitor and discuss their conservation. The interest of the Ramsar Convention in this area is easily justified. As recently as October 1995 it was reported in BBC Wildlife that nearly half of Britain's wetlands are in decline because of pollution from agriculture, sewage works and industry, sea defence works, mining, marinas, housing and industrial development, water abstraction and shellfish harvesting. Despite rising levels of public awareness of environmental issues, there is obviously a constant threat to wetland ecosystems on a global level.

The natural and cultural heritage of Top End wetlands was recognised by the inclusion of Kakadu National Park on the World Heritage List, stage one being listed in 1981, stage two in 1987 and a consolidated nomination was accepted in 1992.

The national importance of wetlands can be appreciated when we consider that 70% of Australia is semi-arid. In the Australian landscape the wetlands are a startling contrast: small oases of life and water supporting large plant and animal populations.

Scientific significance

The wetlands of the Top End of the NT have a rich diversity of species. There are sixty-four known species of mammals, which is over one-quarter of Australia's mammal fauna, and 289 species of birds. There are species of plants and animals that are endemic, that is, they are found nowhere else in the world and so they are of special interest. These include the Pig-nosed Turtle (Carettochelys insculpata), the Oenpelli Python (Morelia oenpelliensis) and the Chestnut-quilled Rock-pigeon (Petrophassa rufipennis). The wetlands of the Top End of the Northern Territory are a sanctuary and resting place for approximately twenty-four species of migrant shorebirds and waders belonging to the plover and dotterel families. Their breeding grounds stretch from Europe to eastern Siberia.

The strong seasonal influence of the annual monsoon has created a complex ecosystem in which many organisms display interesting adaptations in structure or behaviour. All wetlands act as natural regulators of water flow and quality. They act as giant sponges, absorbing surface runoff and input from watercourses and releasing the water in a steady flow. Natural water is purified as it passes over gravel beds and sand bars.

The geological history of the region comprises features of great antiquity dating back 2,000 million years (escarpment rocks) in juxtiposition with more modem landforms often no more than a few thousand years old (coastal alluvial plains). Aboriginal people also perceive the antiquity of the area, which is rich in Dreaming sites as well as being their present homeland.

Aesthetic values, recreational and social appeal

The wilderness quality of the wetlands combines sweeping landscapes with the unique experience of meeting wild animals face to face in their own natural surroundings. It is a formula which draws visitors from all over Australia and from many parts of the world. The wetlands have the capacity to inspire and uplift the human spirit, reflecting as they do, both the tranquillity and the drama of the Australian bush.

In many cultures water (in the form of fountains, ponds and artificial lakes) plays an important part in the landscaping of gardens and parks. People are naturally attracted to water and it provides an attractive setting for picnics, camping, excursions, photography and painting. Boating and fishing are recreational pursuits that are popular in the Top End wetlands because of the unspoilt nature of the environment and ecotourism is becoming more and more popular for the same reason.

The presence of wetlands adds another dimension to the identity of the Top End. The unofficial symbol of the region is of a Brolga (Grus rubicundus) silhouetted against a setting sun, while crocodiles dominate people's perceptions of the wildlife of the Top End.

Historic significance

The continuing Aboriginal presence in the wetlands is one of the longest record of human occupation of a region on record. There are significant art sites in the escarpment caves and outliers that record changes not only in the natural environment, such as the extinction of Tasmanian Tigers, or Thylacines (Thylacinus cynocephalus) in the Top End, but changes in cultural expression.

The wetlands region also contains historic relics that relate to the coming of the missionaries, the first pastoralists, the buffalo hunters and miners.

1. Land Use 2. Management Issues   4. Activities

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Did you know?

Amphibians were the first backboned animals to emerge onto land. Far older than the dinosaurs they have evolved many strage survival strategies.