Top End tourism threatened by climate change

G Magazine

Climate change

kakadu national park

Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory

Credit: iStockphoto

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Want to get close to a spectacular array of Australian wildlife and top up on some Aboriginal culture to boot? Then Kakadu National Park, 150 km east of Darwin in the Northern Territory, is the place to go.

It's home to more than 30 per cent of Australia's 280 species of birds and around a quarter of our native mammals - and it also has thousands of rock art sites.

The region has been continuously inhabited by people for 50,000 years and it's one of very few places on the planet that is included on the World Heritage list for both its natural and cultural values.

"It is a unique example of a complex of ecosystems, including tidal flats, floodplains, lowlands and plateaux, and provides a habitat for a wide range of rare or endemic species of plants and animals," says UNESCO's World Heritage inscription for the park. "The cave paintings, rock carvings and archaeological sites record the skills and way of life of the region's inhabitants, from the hunter-gatherers of prehistoric times to the Aboriginal people still living there."

There are a range of ecotourism operators who can help you sustainably experience the park in all its splendour - one of the best is the Kakadu Culture Camp which won Ecotourism Australia's Indigenous Culture Tour of the Year in 2009 and which was recently listed in Australian Traveller magazine's top 20 Australian tours.

Rising sea levels

While you're there though, spare a thought for the impact of rising sea levels. A 2009 report from the government's Sustainable Tourism Cooperative Research Centre found that Kakadu is one of five Australian tourism icons most at threat from the impacts of climate change.

It's a significant issue for both the environment and the economy of the Northern Territory; Kakadu is a huge tourism drawcard, and was responsible for bringing in more than 165,000 tourists during 2004/2005 alone.

"There's no doubt that Kakadu faces a serious threat from sea rise. A large percentage of Kakadu's floodplains aren't far above sea level now," says tour operator Andy Ralph. "A 30 to 60 cm sea level rise could have significant impact on the environmental and cultural values of the region. This worries not only the locals who call Kakadu home, but also all people with an interest in Kakadu's World Heritage values."

Ralph co-manages Kakadu Culture Camp with his National Park ranger wife Jenny Hunter and her family of the local Bolmo Deidjrungi clan.

When I arrive at Kakadu during what the traditional owners of the region describe as the "Gudjewg" - the true Wet season, in late December - there is water everywhere, and I can see why the park is home to Australia's largest expanse of pristine freshwater wetlands.

"There has been a massive loss of wetlands globally - they are an endangered ecosystem," says Anna Boustead, a researcher formerly based at Charles Darwin University and co-author of the Sustainable Tourism CRC report. "Kakadu has some of the last untouched [freshwater] wetlands in Australia."

The problem is that sea level is rising off the coast of the NT at around twice the global average; monitoring stations off Darwin have been recording an average rise of 7 mm a year each year for the last 20 years. Much of Kakadu is less than a metre above sea level, and modelling from the CSIRO suggests that 72 per cent of freshwater wetlands could be inundated with seawater by 2050 if current trends continue.

"All trends indicate a substantial impact from saltwater intrusion," says Boustead.

Until more research is completed, it's difficult to tell which species could be most impacted, but casualties could include some of the 39 species of migratory birds that stop off in the freshwater wetlands along routes that traverse the world.

Boustead's work suggests that magpie geese - up to one million of which congregate on Kakadu to breed in the dry season, and saltwater crocodiles - which like a source of freshwater near to nest sites - are likely to suffer. A total of as many as 137 species are dependent on the freshwater wetlands in some way, so the impacts could be much more wide-ranging, however.

Many impacts

Tourism operators are also likely to also take a hit, says Boustead. But as the "industry is highly flexible and responds to global and local trends, it makes it difficult to predict the impact of climate change." Some commentators are even suggesting that the region should capitalise on the impacts of climate change, rather than trying to shield the public from worst of the implications.

Stuart Blanch, director of Environment Centre NT, a conservation NGO based in Darwin, says that keeping this kind of information under wraps is short sighted - "just like when alpine tourism operators objected to the NSW Government's campaign depicting the Snowy Mountains with little snow in 2030 due to global warming."

"What better way to protect Kakadu's wetlands and wildlife than by proactively telling every tourist about the climate change threat and asking them to call on their governments and industries to commit to deep emissions cuts when they get home?" he says.

"They could marshal millions of willing advocates for Kakadu and for the future survival of their businesses. Perhaps Kakadu National Park could produce a virtual 3D computer model of what it will look like by 2100 after a century of climate change."

John Pickrell is an award-winning environment writer and is the deputy editor of Australian Geographic.