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), 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 is conducted by Prof JP Grobler, Hesmari Bindeman, Dr Riël Coetzer and Thabang Madisha, together with a number of close collaborators and affiliated members of staff. Conservation Geneticists formally affiliated with the Department of Genetics are Prof Antoinette Kotzé and Prof Desiré Dalton from the National Zoological Gardens (a SANBI facility), and Prof Trudy Turner from the Department of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the USA.

The following postgraduate students are currently conducting research in the field of conservation genetics:


Anri Van Wyk, who is investigating hybridization involving a range of Southern African game species.

Zelda Du Toit, who is studying the phylogeography of pangolins.

Pumeza Cingo, working on genetic and immunological diversity of Old World Vultures in South Africa.

Rae Smith, studying the impact of translocations on the genetic diversity and fitness of Cape mountain zebra.  


Marieka Van Niekerk, working on genetic diversity in fragmented giraffe populations.

Elmarie Blom, working on the association between genetic diversity and adaptability in zebrafish.

Ruan Jacobs, who is studying genetic diversity in adaptive genes across a diverse landscape, in kudu.

Khanye Nxumalo, who is completing the genetic characterization of the Nguni sheep breed (with collaboration from the ARC).

2018 Honours students:

Lauren Coetzee is using environmental DNA (eDNA) samples to study the genetic characteristics of earthworm populations.

Gerhard Reyneke is working on the identification of possible disease associated bacteria in laboratory zebrafish.

Suzaan Mostert is working on performance-related genes in horses.

Paballo Motloung is comparing the genetic characteristics of an isolate giraffe population with that of other giraffe populations.

Recently completed MSc and PhD projects:

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).


Faculty Manager: Ms Lee-Ann Frazenburg
T: +27 51 401 3199
E: damonsle@ufs.ac.za

Marketing Manager: Mrs Elfrieda Lötter
T: +27 51 401 2531
E: lottere@ufs.ac.za

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