Cape York

Cape York Peninsula – A National Icon


Lockerbie Rainforest by Kerry Trapnell

Cape York Peninsula is an ancient and beautiful region that has been home to a diversity of Aboriginal and Islander peoples for thousands of years. But it is also a land of contrasts. Roads that are flooded, muddy and impassable during much of the ‘wet’ season between December and April are dusty and bone-jarringly firm during the ‘dry’. Country that is lush and green at the end of the monsoon rains can be brown and wilting in the tropical heat of November, or black and charred after one of the many bushfires that regularly sweep through the landscape. The vegetation is continually changing as you drive the network of roads that crisscross the Peninsula. Expansive tracts of woodland are replaced by savanna grasslands dotted with termite mounds for as far as the eye can see. Lush tropical rainforests, healthlands and giant river systems are all part of the Cape York experience. The Cape is a fascinating mix of colours and textures, contrast the spectacular snow-white dune fields of Shelburne Bay with the turquoise waters of Princess Charlotte Bay, and the rustic hues of a sunset over the northernmost tip of mainland Australia.

Conservation Significance

In terms of conservation significance, Cape York (which is almost the same size as Victoria!) is undoubtedly one of the nation’s icons. On any visit you will have the opportunity to visit some of what are Australia’s largest and most diverse wetlands and explore tracts of amazing wild country. The Peninsula is home to about one-fifth of Australia’s rainforests, including the country’s largest remaining area of lowland rainforest conserved within the Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park (CYPAL). Cape York also contains 21 major river systems, most of which are free from major infrastructure such as dams or weirs and teem with fish and waterbirds.

Paperbarks on the Mitchell River by Kerry Trapnell

Cape York Peninsula is also habitat for an enormous diversity of plants and animals, with than one-half of Australia’s bird species (301), one-third of Australia’s mammal species (73), one-quarter of Australia’s frog species (32) and one-quarter of Australia’s reptiles (103). Approximately 60 per cent of Australia’s freshwater fish species occur on Cape York, with more species of freshwater fish (47) living in the Wenlock River than in any other Australian river. Much of the flora and fauna present on the Peninsula does not occur throughout the remainder of Australia. There are at least 379 species of plants and 85 vertebrate animals on Cape York that are classified as rare or threatened. Many Australians are familiar with various high-profile Cape York fauna including the endangered Golden-shouldered Parrot which constructs nests in termite mounds, and the spectacular Palm Cockatoo, Green Python and Grey Cuscus which do not occur elsewhere within Australia.

Tommy George, Elder and Senior Ranger, Giant Horse Gallery, near Laura by Kerry Trapnell

Cultural Significance and Indigenous Issues

Cape York Peninsula has been home to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for millennia. Traditional cultures are still very much alive in the region. However, the impacts of past government policies and displacement of traditional landowners to other areas has caused significant disruption to the culture and wellbeing of many of the Cape’s peoples. Like in other parts of Australia, some Aboriginal languages have disappeared and others are in danger of vanishing, taking with them priceless wisdom of traditional knowledge and culture. Despite the majority of land on Cape York being Aboriginal Country, most traditional owners are still unable to return to their traditional lands due to issues of tenure. CAFNEC believes that that resolution of the dispossession of traditional peoples from their land, together with resolution of the social and economic consequences of the dispossession, are fundamental to the conservation of the Cape’s natural and cultural heritage.

What we’re doing…

CAFNEC has been involved in Cape York issues for well more than 15 years. Through dedication of volunteers and CAFNEC staff – we have helped keep Cape York high on the political agenda. It has been often a frustrating and slow campaign, but little by little, Australians are becoming more aware of the importance and uniqueness of Cape York both for its natural and its cultural values – and their interdependence.


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