Australia & Australians


Australia: The Facts



Australia is the largest Island country in the world, surrounded by the Pacific, Indian Oceans in the Southern Hemisphere.

In land area, Australia is the sixth largest nation after Russia, Canada, China, the United States of America and Brazil. It has, however, a relatively small population.

Australia is the only nation to govern an entire continent and its outlying islands. The mainland is the largest island and the smallest, flattest continent on Earth. It lies between 10° and 39° South latitude.

The highest point on the mainland, Mount Kosciuszko, is only 2228 metres. Apart from Antarctica, Australia is the driest continent.

Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth. Its interior has one of the lowest rainfalls in the world and about three-quarters of the land is arid or semi-arid. Its fertile areas are well-watered, however, and these are used very effectively to help feed the world. Sheep and cattle graze in dry country, but care must be taken with the soil. Some grazing land became desert when the long cycles that influence rainfall in Australia turned to drought.

The Australian federation consists of six States and two Territories. Most inland borders follow lines of longitude and latitude. The largest State, Western Australia, is about the same size as Western Europe.

Australia is an independent Western democracy with a population of more than 20 million. It is one of the world’s most urbanised countries, with about 70 per cent of the population living in the 10 largest cities. Most of the population is concentrated along the eastern seaboard and the south-eastern corner of the continent.

Australia’s lifestyle reflects its mainly Western origins, but Australia is also a multicultural society which has been enriched by over six million settlers from almost 200 nations. Four out of ten Australians are migrants or the first-generation children of migrants, half of them from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people totalled 410 003 at the last census, nearly 2.2 per cent of the population. Two thirds of the indigenous people live in towns and cities. Many others live in rural and remote areas, and some still have a broadly traditional way of life. It is generally thought that Aboriginal people began living on the continent 50 000 to 60 000 years ago, and some authorities believe their occupation may date back 100 000 years.

Australia is the only nation to occupy an entire continent. Its land mass of nearly 7.7 million km2 is the flattest and (after Antarctica) driest of continents, yet it has extremes of climate and topography. There are rainforests and vast plains in the north, snowfields in the south east, desert in the centre and fertile croplands in the east, south and south west. About one third of the country lies in the tropics. Australia has a coastline of 36 735km.

Isolation of the Australian island-continent for 55 million years created a sanctuary for the flora and fauna. Marsupials were saved from competition with more highly developed mammals. Birds unique to Australia also survived, and distinctive trees and plants developed. Australia’s best-known animals are the kangaroo, koala, platypus and spiny anteater. Of more than 700 bird species listed in Australia, 400 - including the large, flightless emu - are found nowhere else. Australia has 20 000 species of plants, including living fossils such as the cycad palm and the grass tree, and brilliant wildflowers such as the waratah, Sturt’s desert pea, the flowering cones of banksia trees, and the red and green kangaroo paw. The continent has 700 species of acacia, which Australians call wattle, and 1200 species in the Myrtaceae family which includes eucalypts or gum trees.

Australia’s national anthem, Advance Australia Fair, is a revised version of a late 19th-century patriotic song. It was declared the national anthem in April 1984, replacing God Save the Queen, which was designated the royal anthem. In the same year, Australia officially adopted green and gold as its national colours.

Australia’s official language is English, by common usage rather than law. Australian English does not differ significantly from other forms of English, although some colloquial and slang expressions are unique.

The flag of Australia is the only one to fly over a whole continent. The small Union Jack represents the historical link with Britain, the large seven-pointed star represents the six States and the Territories, and the small stars form the Southern Cross - a prominent feature of the southern hemisphere night sky.

Australia’s coat of arms - the official emblem of the Australian Government - was granted by King George V in 1912. The arms consist of a shield containing the badges of the six States. The supporters are native Australian fauna – a kangaroo and an emu. A yellow-flowered native plant, wattle, also appears in the design.

Australia’s national day, Australia Day, on 26 January, marks the date in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip, of the British Royal Navy, commanding a fleet of 11 ships, sailed into Port Jackson (Sydney Cove). Phillip formally took possession of the eastern part of the continent for England and established a settlement, now Australia’s largest city, Sydney.

Air travel and the great variety of Australia’s attractions are combining to bring more international tourists to Australia every year. Overseas tourists are drawn by Australia’s sunshine, sandy beaches, the vast outback, rainforests, the Great Barrier Reef, unique flora and fauna, the Gold Coast of Queensland, and the attractions of the cities, Australia’s friendly, multicultural society, and the safe and welcoming environment. Tourism is one of Australia’s largest and fastest-growing industries. In 2002, 4.8 million international tourists visited Australia, a quarter of them from Japan and another quarter from other countries of East Asia.

In 2000, Australian exports grew by 25 per cent to reach a total value of $143 billion, representing the best export growth Australia had experienced for 21 years. This figure increased again in 2000 - 01, to $154 billion. In 2001 - 02, the total value of Australian exports dropped by one per cent, reflecting a more difficult global trading environment. Australia's export structures have changed considerably over the past 10 years.

Although trade in commodities remains strong, new services and sophisticated manufacturing export markets have emerged. Merchandise exports were valued at $121 billion in 2001 - 02. During the same year, Australian exports of services totalled $31 billion. Exports have recorded 8 per cent average annual growth since 1991 - 92. They now account for 21 per cent of GDP, compared with around 17 per cent in 1991 - 92.

Japan remains Australia's largest single export market, buying 19 per cent of total merchandise exports in 2001 - 02. The United States accounts for 10 per cent, Korea 8 per cent and New Zealand 6 per cent. China, Singapore, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong and Indonesia were also significant export markets. (Merchandise exports to East Asia grew by 35 per cent in 2000 and to the Middle East by 38 per cent in the same year. Growth was small in 2001 - 02: to East Asia almost zero, and to the Middle East up just one per cent).


Flora and fauna

Australia is a land like no other, with about one million different native species. More than 80 per cent of the country’s flowering plants, mammals, reptiles and frogs are unique to Australia, along with most of its freshwater fish and almost half of its birds.

Australia’s marine environment is home to 4000 fish species, 1700 coral species, 50 types of marine mammal and a wide range of seabirds. Most marine species found in southern Australian waters occur nowhere else.

Australia’s geographic isolation has meant that much of its flora and fauna is very different from species in other parts of the world. Most are found nowhere else. However, some closely related species are found on the continents which once made up the ancient southern supercontinent Gondwana.

Covered in rainforest and ferns 300 million years ago, Gondwana included South America, Africa, India and Antarctica. Most of Australia’s flora and fauna have their origins in Gondwana, which broke up about 140 million years ago.

Australia separated from Antarctica 50 million years ago. As it drifted away from the southern polar region, its climate became warmer and drier and new species of plants and animals evolved and came to dominate the landscape.

In 1994, the Wollemi Pine was found in a remote valley in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. It is believed to be representative of a now extinct group of trees that existed at the time of the dinosaurs, making it a species that has been around for 65 million years.

There are now an estimated 20 000 vascular and 7700 non-vascular plants, and 250 000 species of fungi in Australia. Plants include living fossils such as the cycad palm and the grass tree, and brilliant wildflowers such as the waratah, Sturt’s desert pea, banksia and kangaroo paws.

Australia has over 1000 species of acacia, which Australians call ‘wattle’, and around 2800 species in the Myrtaceae family, which includes eucalypts (or gum trees) and melaleucas.

The high diversity of flora includes large numbers of species in ecologically significant genera such as Acacia, Eucalyptus, Melaleuca, Grevillea and Allocasuarina. Acacias tend to dominate in drier inland parts of Australia, while eucalypts dominate in wetter parts. Australia’s unique flora includes the Proteaceae family of Banksia, Dryandra, Grevillea, Hakea and Telopea (waratah).

The most common vegetation types today are those that have adapted to arid conditions, where the land has not been cleared for agriculture. The dominant type of vegetation in Australia—23 per cent—is the hummock grasslands in Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory. In the east eucalypt woodlands are prevalent, and in the west there are Acacia forests, woodlands and shrublands. Tussock grasslands are found largely in Queensland.



In Australia there are more than 378 species of mammals, 828 species of birds, 300 species of lizards, 140 species of snakes and two species of crocodiles. Of the mammals, almost half are marsupials. The rest are either placental mammals or monotremes.

Among Australia’s best-known animals are the kangaroo, koala, echidna, dingo, platypus, wallaby and wombat.

Australia has more than 140 species of marsupials, including kangaroos, wallabies, koalas, wombats and the Tasmanian Devil, which is now found only in Tasmania.

There are 55 different species of kangaroos and wallabies—macropods—native to Australia.

Macropods vary greatly in size and weight, ranging from half a kilogram to 90 kilograms.

Estimates of Australia’s kangaroo population vary between 30 and 60 million.

The dingo is Australia’s native wild dog and its largest carnivorous mammal. In an effort to keep fertile south-east Australia relatively free of dingoes, the world’s largest fence was built, spanning 5320 kilometres from Queensland to South Australia.

Australia hosts another unique animal group, the monotremes, which are egg-laying mammals, often referred to as ‘living fossils’. The most distinctive is the platypus, a river dwelling animal with a duck-like bill, a furry body and webbed feet.

Of the 828 bird species listed in Australia, about half are found nowhere else. Isolation has also contributed to the development and survival of unusual birds. These range from tiny honeyeaters to the large, flightless emu, which stands nearly two metres tall. Some outstanding examples are cassowaries, black swans, fairy penguins, kookaburras, lyrebirds and currawongs. There are 55 species of parrots in Australia. Many of these birds are as numerous as they are colourful, including a spectacular variety of cockatoos, rosellas, lorikeets, cockatiels, parakeets and budgerigars.

Australia has more species of venomous snakes than any other continent (21 of the world’s 25 deadliest snakes).

Australia’s diverse oceans support around 4000 of the world’s 22 000 types of fish, as well as 30 of the world’s 58 seagrass species.

Australia is also home to the world’s largest coral reef system, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef. Marine species of note include the predatory great white shark, which grows up to six metres in length; the giant filter-feeding whale shark, which can reach lengths of 12 metres; the bluebottle or Portuguese man-of-war, which is a common hazard at many Australian beaches; and the box jellyfish, which is one of the most venomous animals in the world.


Environmental challenges

The arrival of Europeans has had a significant impact on Australia’s flora and fauna. There are at least 18 introduced mammals with established feral populations in Australia. Cats and foxes are responsible for the decline and extinction of several native animals. The feral rabbit population has degraded some areas of Australian farmland, and their rapid spread led to the construction of three rabbit-proof fences spanning some 3256 kilometres in Western Australia between 1901 and 1907. Introduced plants have also caused substantial damage to native vegetation and habitats.

Climate change poses a particular threat to specific areas, such as Australia’s alpine regions, the Great Barrier Reef, tropical rainforests, some species of Eucalyptus, and coastal mangrove and wetland systems like Kakadu in the Northern Territory.

Key facts

  • Australia has around 10 per cent of the world’s biodiversity.
  • Of the estimated 20 000 species of vascular plants found in Australia, 16 000 are found nowhere else in the world.
  • Of the 378 species of mammals in Australia, more than 80 per cent are unique to Australia.
  • Of the 869 types of Australian reptile, 773 are found nowhere else.



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