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, we also aim to unravel the genetic interactions between wildlife hosts and associated microbiomes and how these impacts aspects of fitness. 
  • 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.

Species that are currently studied include a range of mammals (white rhino, gemsbok, red hartebeest, eland, giraffe, kudu); several reptile species; zebrafish (as a model organism for the processes described above) and invertebrates (freshwater- and marine mussels, brine shrimp and dragonflies).

The Conservation Genetics Team

Research in Conservation Genetics / Conservation Biology is conducted by staff members Prof Paul GroblerDr Morné Du Plessis and Alistair Naidoo, postdoc Dr Zhongning Zhao, together with a number of close collaborators and affiliated members of staff.  Scientists working closely with our group include Prof Frank Zachos from the Natural History Museum in Vienna (Austria); Prof Jess Jones from Virginia Tech University (USA), Prof Antoinette (retired, formerly National Zoological Gardens); and Prof Brian Reilly from the Tshwane University of Technology.

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



  • Heath Cronje, who is working on a management plan for a number of antelope species on Nature Reserves in the Northern Cape Province.
  • Ruan Jacobs, who is working on the estimation of ungulate abundance and population structure using non-invasive genetic sampling methods.
  • 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. (Submitted end 2023)
  • Peter Mills, working on shifting paradigms and the relevance of South Africa's current conservation model.
  • Khanye Nxumalo, who is working on the genetic characterization of indigenous cattle breeds (based at the ARC).


  • Zuan Grobler is working on genetic diversity and the optimal composition of founder populations in an intensely managed southern white rhino population.
  • Alistair Naidoo is working on the zebrafish and brine shrimp as a model organisms to study the relationship between genetic diversity and response to environmental stressors.
  • Jadie Carelse is working on genetic structure in selected giraffe populations in South Africa.
  • Heike Oosthuysen is studying the change in plant and invertebrate biodiversity during the natural recovery of old planted fields, utilising metabarcoding techniques. (With Dr Riël Coetzer, UFH, as main supervisor)

2024 Honours students

  • Several new Honours students will join the team in 2024.

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

  • Christopher Komakech completed his PhD in Conservation Biology, working on alternative land use for communities affected by mining in Richards Bay area (2023) (with Prof Annabel Fossey as supervisor).
  • Jodea Van der Merwe received her MSc for research on genealogy and genetic diversity in white rhino populations (2022).
  • Hannah Janse van Vuuren completed her MSc on genetic diversity in fragmented red hartebeest populations (2022).
  • Mart-Mari Myburgh completed her MSc on assessing invertebrate biodiversity in the central Winterberg mountains of the Eastern Cape using DNA barcoding methods (2022).
  • Katherine Hughes completed her MSc on the development of a novel SNP panel for South African lions, with possible application in the lion bone trade (2022).
  • Elmarie Blom completed her MSc on the association between genetic diversity and adaptability in zebrafish (2021).
  • Michelle Magliolo received her MSc, working on the development of a SNP panel for parentage verification in cheetah (2021).
  • Zelda Du Toit completed her PhD on the phylogeography of pangolins (working at the National Zoological Garden) (2021).
  • 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

Home new

We use cookies to make interactions with our websites and services easy and meaningful, to better understand how they are used and to tailor advertising. You can read more and make your cookie choices here. By continuing to use this site you are giving us your consent to do this.