This unique archaeological and ethnological reserve has been inhabited continuously for more than 40,000 years. 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. 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 plant and animal species.
The park comprises four major landforms: Arnhem land plateau and escarpment complex; southern hills and basins; Koolpinyah surface; and coastal riverine plains. The western rim of the Arnhem land plateau comprises escarpments ranging in height from about 30-330 m over a distance of some 500 km. In addition to the four major landforms, almost 500 km2 of intertidal and estuarine areas and two islands lie within the park. The tropical monsoonal climate, with its marked wet and dry seasons, is the major factor determining the surface water hydrology, vegetation and, over time, the landforms of the park region.
The vegetation can be classified into 13 broad categories, seven of which are dominated by a distinct species of Eucalyptus . Other categories comprise mangrove; samphire; lowland rainforest; paper bark swamp; seasonal flood plain and sandstone rainforest. Floristically it is the most diverse and most natural area of northern Australia with 46 species of plant considered rare or threatened, and nine restricted to the park.
Because of its diversity of land systems from marine and coastal habitats (which support substantial turtle and dugong populations) through to the arid sandstone escarpment, Kakadu is one of the world's richest wildlife parks. One-third of Australia's bird species and one quarter of its freshwater and estuarine fish species species are found in Kakadu. Huge concentrations of waterbirds (2.5 million) make seasonal use of the floodplains of the park and there are a diversity of invertebrates including 55 species of termite and 200 species of ant (10% of the total world number) as well as a wide diversity of small mammals. It also contains the most important breeding habitat in the world for the saltwater crocodile and the pig-nosed turtle - both threatened reptiles.
All the major landforms are incorporated in the park, which therefore provides an outstanding example of both ancient and recent geological changes to the continent. The park also contains many examples of relict species and species that represent the various periods of the biological evolution of the Australian fauna. The coastal rivers and flood plains illustrate the ecological effects of sea-level change in this part of Australia, as such; the park provides a special opportunity to investigate large-scale evolutionary processes in an intact landscape.
The region has been little affected by European settlement, in comparison with the remainder of the continent, hence the natural vegetation remains extensive in area and relatively unmodified, and its faunal composition is largely intact. Approximately 300 Aboriginal people reside in the park, including traditional owners and Aboriginals with recognized social and traditional attachments to the area. The park contains many Aboriginal archaeological, sacred and art sites.
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