Kakadu National Park prepares for 40th anniversary and looks forward to $200m makeover

Publish Date:
31st March 2019

Excerpt below read full story on ABC website

by Stephanie Zillman

...In the 1980s, Kakadu was newly inducted into the world heritage listed fold and represented the gold standard in environmental land management.

It was also the only national park in the world to have a joint-management arrangement between the government and traditional owners.

But now on the cusp of Kakadu National Park's 40th anniversary, this land of iconic Australiana is far from postcard perfect.

Pressures like the cane toad invasion, other feral animals like water buffalo and pigs, noxious weeds and poor fire management have meant the nearly 20,000 square kilometre national park is not the pristine land it once was.

There's been an extraordinary collapse in Kakadu's native animal numbers — for example, the brush-tailed rabbit rat is thought to now be extinct from the area, having not been sighted in Kakadu since 2008.

Then there's the abysmal living conditions of local Aboriginal people, many of whom were promised the world when the Ranger Uranium Mine was greenlighted in the 1970s.

Riding high on the success of the Crocodile Dundee blockbuster, Kakadu was attracting 250,000 tourists a year in its late 1980s heyday — and that's now dropped back to around 185,000.

Poor tourism infrastructure, persistent road closures around the major attractions, and seasonal weather have all played a part here.

But now for the first time in decades, there are now reasons for local custodians and tourism operators to hope for more.

Earlier this year, the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader each committed $200 million in funds to secure the national park's future — racing each other to Kakadu to make the announcement.

Smack bang in the middle of Kakadu is the time warp town of Jabiru — a place founded as a mining town for the Ranger Uranium mine, and somewhere that's incidentally also the gateway to the park.

Under the original contract, the company behind Ranger was meant to remove Jabiru when the mine closed, effectively erasing it from history.

But the Gundjeihmi Aboriginal Corporation, which represents some of the regions Aboriginal groups, stepped in to ensure Jabiru not only lives on, but is at the centre of Kakadu's tourism revival. 

For local traditional owners, the bipartisan funding commitment is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

"They think yeah this is a great opportunity, it will better change our outstations, our lifestyles, everything will be changed," traditional owner Corben Mudjandi explains.

It's also being seen as a way to keep young people in jobs locally, so that they stay on country.

"We work together so hard, we always stick together to come to every meeting and we talk about everything — like our country, our Mirarr children, we don't want them to wander off somewhere else — we want to keep them here, and help us work in our country, to look after our mother country," says Annie Njalmirama, TO.

At the heart of it all, traditional owners are calling for fundamental changes to the lives, opportunities and living conditions of Indigenous people in Kakadu - and that this time, the spoils of tourism will be shared equally.