Feral threat hanging over Kakadu

They should be the pin-up vistas of Australia's largest and most unique national park - the limpid streams and emerald flood plains of Yellow Water that nourish the heart of Kakadu in the Northern Territory.

But now some of the waterways are running brown with mud and the flood plains are pockmarked with craters, after a dispute between the traditional Aboriginal owners and park management allowed the build-up of feral animals, including buffalo, in the sensitive world heritage area.

Special no-culling or no-shooting zones have been discreetly imposed on vast areas of the park by the traditional owners who claim parks management is using ''white Australia''-style discrimination not to promote them as rangers. The dispute is one of the many problems uncovered by a Fairfax investigation into the park, which is jointly managed by a board of traditional owners and national parks bureaucrats.

Now as the board is drawing up a 10-year management plan to start next year, the investigation has found allegations of mismanagement of bushfires and feral and native animals, an unsanctioned burial of a body, and conflicting interests which threaten the park's existence.

Director of National Parks Peter Cochrane has rejected concerns and says he has complete confidence in management.

But the investigation has confirmed that other incidents raising concern are:

A bushfire left to burn over 80 kilometres, which destroyed grasshopper habitat, because the park lacked a full-time bushfire officer.

The burial of an Aboriginal person in the park, contrary to management instructions and aggravating a dispute among traditional owners.

A crocodile wrongly suspected of eating a tourist being destroyed mistakenly.

Wild dogs and dingoes left scavenging at a rubbish dump despite an attack on a tourist at a nearby caravan park.

The resignation of the board chairman partly over a decision to buy rifles for culling instead of funding a cultural expedition.

The park's use of a potentially outdated weed management policy and a feral animal culling policy and a conservation position on the board was left unfilled for two years.

This week, former officials and rangers expressed concern.

''It's gone from where there was active shooting-out policy [for feral animals] to getting rid of these animals to absolutely nothing, because traditional owners object to anything being done,'' says Chris Haynes who managed the park in the 1970s and early 2000s.

Dave Lindner, a park resident and former employee with the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission who is married to a traditional owner, says the build-up of feral animals is a huge concern. This is particularly the case around the Yellow Water area because it could jeopardise important weed management programs.

But traditional owners argue that buffalo and horses should be left alone because they are culturally significant, having been in the area for more than 100 years.

A former board chairman and traditional owner, Mick Markham, blames ''rambo rangers''. He says he quit as chairman last year partly over parks management spending $16,000 on rifles and not on funding a cultural trip for his clan.

He and others are also concerned about discrimination against Aboriginal employees because they do not have higher education qualifications.

But a Parks Australia spokeswoman rejects all allegations, especially any claims of discrimination.

Mr Cochrane says the board members represent a wide range of views. ''It is the only feasible approach for such a diverse, jointly managed park, which aims to conserve a very significant example of the Top End landscape and meet the aspirations of both traditional owners and visitors," he says.

The story Feral threat hanging over Kakadu first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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