Meet The Member: Khathu Neshunzhi – Learning To Love The (Wild)Life

When he was young, Khathutshelo Neshunzhi (just call him Khathu) was given two important bits of advice. First, don’t ever stop learning and growing as a person. And second, whatever you do, give it 100%. And that’s advice that definitely comes in handy as a Biobank Technician at the SANBI Wildlife Biobank – one of South Africa’s biggest and most important biodiversity biobanks.

Khathu Neshunzi Biobank Technician SANBI Biobank

SANBI Wildlife Biobank Technician Khathu Neshunzhi lives his life according to two principles: never stop learning, and always give it your all.

“If you want to learn something, you’ll open your heart for learning,” he says. “And you’ll never stop. So today I know about elephants and rhinos? Tomorrow I’ll learn about lizards and pangolins. Or plants. Or new techniques and technologies. The possibilities are endless – and I still want to learn and develop new skills every day.”

The wildlife biobank at the South African National Biodiversity Institute has been dedicated to the long-term collection, curation and archiving of biodiversity samples for more than 20 years, and holds hundreds of thousands of samples from some of the most interesting or endangered (or both) species in South Africa (and the world). As a technician, Khathu provides both administrative and technical support to the daily operations of the biobank – and the international community it supports.

It’s a long way from Limpopo, where Khathu was born and bred just outside a small town called Louis Trichardt, and where he completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Life Sciences at the University of Limpopo.

He’d always been interested in biodiversity – he was the chairperson of the Biodiversity Students Society on campus and led biodiversity educational trips to take his fellow students out of the country to gain biodiversity knowledge. But when he joined the NZG Biobank in 2019, starting as an intern…he was hooked.

“That is where I found my passion. I fell in love with the biobanking thing, with what it could mean for biodiversity conservation and preserving our biological heritage.”

When his internship ended, he became a Research Assistant at the Biobank. And when that contract ended, he volunteered his time at the NZG Biobank. So when the spot opened up for a Biobank Technician, Khathu didn’t hesitate, leaping at the chance to show off all the skills he’d acquired…and to add to them.

Here’s what Khathu has to say about his biobanking journey (so far)…

So what do you do on a daily basis? What does the work entail?
A lot of what we do is admin – maybe 40% of it is capturing and digitizing data. But the other 60% we are more technical, using our skills out in the field or in the lab, collecting and processing samples, as well as providing support to research scientists (there are a lot of research projects using Biobank samples and data). And then there’s the supervision of interns and volunteers, showing them our daily operations, training them, supervising them – because attention to detail matters, and the best way to learn is to teach.

Khathu Neshunzi In The Lab

Labwork is only a fraction of what goes into working in a biobank – but it’s a good fraction.

Sounds like you have your hands full.
Well, we like to keep busy. And we’re always a little short-staffed, so at any moment I could get a call about a postmortem, say, or they could say I have to mark a newborn in the field, so days don’t always go according to plan. Because this isn’t quite like a game reserve or a national park – every single case is something we have to attend to. So we spend a lot of time running up and down, you see – but it’s totally worth it. Oh, and then there’s the visitors. So we always have to be ready for that – to share more about the biobank’s work and why it matters.

So why does it matter anyway?
Ah, now there’s a big question. Well, to start with research…the biobank provides answers to those world-class scientific questions that depend on collections, questions like: what would happen if we move certain animals to a certain area? What are the risks involved? Where do these illegally traded animal carcasses come from? Questions like that.

And then the biobank also increases the range and quality of the samples stored or banked, as well as providing or improving access to research and development. Better samples means better answers. And then there’s the matter of storing and preserving some of our most endangered species – so that even if one day they go extinct in the wild, we’ll have enough information to know what we’ve lost…and why.

So what do you do to relax (you know, when you’re not working or learning)?
Well, my life is pretty boring. Every day after work I do some exercise, go for a jog. And then on weekends there’s soccer – you’ll find me at the stadium or in front of the TV watching soccer, or better yet, playing soccer. And then I love to explore: go to a new place, try some new food. And I have this connection with nature, so I love to visit parks and game reserves. Just freeing my mind from the work and getting to enjoy what it’s for.

So what are your dreams? Where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?
Well, I’ve definitely developed a passion for this field, so I think I’d love to develop more knowledge in preservation and conservation and improve my understanding of research. I don’t know exactly what that means, or where that will take me, but what I really want is to learn and develop more skills and experience – and to put those skills to good use. It’s hard to imagine a better place to do that than here at the biobank.

Want to know more about the National Zoological Gardens, and why the SANBI Biobank is so important? We’ve got you covered. Or find out about the other BBSA partner institutions here. And while you’re at it, why not learn more about what biobanks are (and aren’t) all about?

What are biodiversity biobanks?

Biodiversity biobanks are repositories of biologically relevant resources, including reproductive tissues such as seeds, eggs and sperm, other tissues including blood, DNA extracts, microbial cultures (active and dormant), and environmental samples containing biological communities….