Conservation Genetics - Photographs supplied by Frank ZachosPhotographs supplied by Frank Zachos

What is Conservation Genetics?

Conservation Genetics aims to conserve natural patterns of genetic diversity and differentiation within and between animal populations, and the processes that sustain these patterns. South Africa hosts a large pool of biodiversity which provides exciting opportunities for research in Conservation Genetics and employment as a conservation scientist or manager. A number of focus areas in conservation genetics are in the spotlight during training and research in the Department of Genetics.

  • The study of genetic diversity is central to conservation and population genetics. In this field, we aim to determine levels of genetic diversity in natural and artificially managed populations and screen for signs of inbreeding.
  • The preservation of natural patterns of geographic genetic structure is an important goal of conservation strategies. We thus aim to study genetic connectivity between population fragments, the real boundaries of populations, and the wisdom of translocations between isolated population fragments or over long geographic distances.
  • Hybridisation between closely related species becomes a possibility when human actions bring together species that would not normally occur in the same area. We aim to find molecular markers and statistical approaches to detect hybrids, and develop management guidelines for hybrid populations.
  • In recent times, the practical implications of all the above processes has become an important focus area. We thus aim to predict the practical effects on fitness and adaptability, when populations lose genetic diversity or gene flow occurs between populations or species that are normally not able to interbreed.
  • In addition to the above focus areas, we have projects in the fields of wildlife forensics, characterization of local breeds of farm animals and novel methods for sample collection. Some of the processes described above are also studied in plant populations.

Species that are currently studied include wildebeest (black and blue), gemsbok, red hartebeest, lions, springbok, giraffe, vervet monkeys, mopane caterpillars, mopane trees and kudu, and with a strong growth area involving the use of zebrafish as a model organism for the processes described above.

The Conservation Genetics Team

Research in Conservation Genetics / Conservation Biology is conducted by Prof Paul Grobler, Hesmari Bindeman, Dr Riël Coetzer and Thabang Madisha, together with a number of close collaborators and affiliated members of staff.  Scientists working closely with our group include Prof Antoinette Kotzé and Prof Desiré Dalton from the National Zoological Gardens (a SANBI facility); Prof Brian Reilly from the Tswane University of Technology; Prof Trudy Turner from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the USA; and Prof Frank Zachos from the Natural History Museum in Vienna, Austria.

The following postgraduate students are currently conducting research in the field of Conservation Genetics or Conservation Biology:

  • Humbu Mafumo, working on DNA-based census techniques for African Elephant.
  • Heath Cronje, who is working on a management plan for a number of antelope species on Nature Reserves in the Northern Cape Province.
  • Khanye Nxumalo, who is working on the genetic characterization of indigenous cattle breeds (based at the ARC).
  • Zelda Du Toit, who is studying the phylogeography of pangolins (based at the National Zoological Garden).
  • Louis Le Clercq, working on biological clock measures and the association between the circadian and epigenetic clock as predictors of migration phenology and biological aging in wildlife.
  • Pumeza Cingo, working on genetic and immunological diversity of Old World Vultures in South Africa (based at the National Zoological Garden).
  • Peter Mills, working on shifting paradigms and the relevance of South Africa's current conservation model.
  • Christopher Komakech, working on alternative land use for communities affected by mining in Richards bay area (with Prof. Annabel Fossey as supervisor).

  • Elmarie Blom, working on the association between genetic diversity and adaptability in zebrafish.
  • Carlo Greyling, investigating the genetic status of giraffe in South Africa, in a follow-up to the study just completed by Marieka Van Niekerk.
  • Jodea Van der Merwe, investigating genealogy and genetic diversity in four white rhino populations.
  • Gerhard Van Bosch, working on genetic diversity and differentiation in southern African freshwater mussel populations.
  • Hannah Janse van Vuuren, working on genetic diversity in fragmented red hartebeest populations.
  • Michelle Magliolo, working on the development of a SNP panel for parentage verification in cheetah.
  • Livho Maluma, researching diversity in toll-like receptor genes in Southern Ground-Hornbill.
  • Mart-Mari Myburgh is assessing invertebrate biodiversity in the central Winterberg mountains of the Eastern Cape using DNA barcoding methods.
  • Heike Oosthuysen is studying the change in plant and invertebrate biodiversity during the natural recovery of old planted fields, utilising metabarcoding techniques.
  • Katherine Hughes, working on the development of a novel SNP panel for South African lions, with possible application in the lion bone trade.

2021 Honours students
  • Jady Carelse and Loraine Botha are working on the genetic characterization of various mussel species.
  • Selina Ngozo and Patricia Shikwambana are determining the prevalence of Congenital Stationary Night Blindness (CSNB) in Appaloosa horses.
  • Pheliwe Bayo is working on a phylogeographic analysis of a wood cockroach species (Ectobiidae, Temnopteryx) across a heterogeneous landscape in the Winterberg Mountains, Eastern Cape.
  • Hope Lamoen is studying the phylogeographic diversity of a little known planthopper (Tropiduchidae, Gamergomorphus) from the central Winterberg Mountains, Eastern Cape.

Recently completed MSc and PhD projects (with date of completion in brackets)

  • Ruan Jacobs completed his MSc on genetic diversity in genes with adaptive significance in kudu, across a diverse landscape (2020).
  • Marieka Van Niekerk completed her MSc on genetic status of giraffe from Central South Africa (early 2019).
  • Rae Smith received his PhD after studying the impact of translocations on the genetic diversity and fitness of Cape mountain zebra (2019).
  • Anri Van Wyk completed her PhD on hybridization involving a range of Southern African game species (2019).
  • Nadia Breytenbach was awarded her MSc for research on diversity in performance-related genes in horses (2018).
  • Lucy Kemp completed her PhD on the phylogeography of ground hornbill (2017).
  • Christiaan Labuschagne obtained his PhD on the application of next-generation techniques in conservation genetics, focussing on rhinos and penguins (2016).
  • Bongo Mdyogolo was awarded her MSc for work on patterns of genetic diversity in South African catfish populations (2015).
  • Woogeng Ngundu completed his PhD on the population genetics of edible land snails in Cameroon (2015).
  • Lené Pienaar obtained her MSc on genetic diversity in the Afrikaner cattle breed (2014).


Elfrieda van den Berg (Marketing Manager)
T: +27 51 401 2531


Dilahlwane Mohono (Faculty Officer)
T: +27 58 718 5284

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