New Caledonia is a French territory situated in the south west Pacific ocean just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, 1,500 kilometers east of Australia and the same distance north of New Zealand. It is an archipelago comprising a main island, Grande Terre, and the smaller Loyaute Islands, Ile des Pins, and Belep Islands. Grande Terre is a narrow sliver of land, approximately 390 kilometers long, 50 kilometers wide and very mountainous. Its capital, Noumea, along with most of its population of about 145,000 is in the urbanized area located in the drier, flat southwest coastal region of Grande Terre. The more humid and mountainous exterior is much less developed. Tourism and nickel mining are major industries. New Caledonia has one third of the world's known reserves of nickel. The smaller islands are younger and geologically of different origin than Grande Terre. They are ancient coral reefs that established on volcanic bases whereas New Caledonia was once part of the ancient continent Gondwanaland.
New Caledonia became isolated about 100 million years ago when Gondwanaland separated into various continents including Australia. Its plants and animals are highly distinctive and unique. It is recognized by biologists as a cradle of evolution, a storehouse of faunal and floral antiquities. Ancient plant families that died out in the larger continents persisted in New Caledonia. Other plant species evolved in the unusual metal rich soil that covers half the main island. Today 80% of the 3,200 plant species on New Caledonia are found nowhere else in the world. It is particularly rich in ferns and conifers.
Many lizards and invertebrates are similarly unique to the island. There are 41 species of terrestrial reptiles, mostly skinks and geckos of which 28 are endemic. Since mammals had not yet become dominant when Gondwanaland separated from New Caledonia, the only native mammals are bats whose ancestors colonized the island via long distance dispersal. Most of its 70 species of land birds also derived from ancestors which dispersed long distances from New Guinea or Australia within the last 50,000 years. Exceptions are the Kagu (Rhynochetos jubatus), an endemic rail like flightless bird that lives in the rainforest, and several other indigenous flightless birds which recently have become extinct, including the giant Sylviornus neocaledoniae that existed until the year 1000. The Kagu is considered New Caledonia's national emblem.