SANBI Wildlife Biobank – Saving Species, Building Biodiversity

The wildlife biobank at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) has been dedicated to the long-term collection, curation and archiving of biodiversity samples for more than 20 years. Based at the National Zoological Gardens campus in Pretoria, SANBI Biobank is an international institution, with samples from over 40 countries, and projects running across borders and over oceans.

“The SANBI wildlife biobank serves as a science platform to both the national and international research and conservation community,” explains SANBI Biobank Curator Kim Labuschagne. “It’s able to support a variety of disciplines, including forensic sciences, comparative nutrition, epidemiological surveys, reproductive technologies, genetics and pathology diagnoses.A wide range of current and retrospective (or backward looking) studies can be done using these collections.”

Currently, the biobank collection consists of more than 190 000 different samples from approximately 85 000 individual animals. Nearly 1000 species from 221 families are represented, including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and – more recently – marine and freshwater invertebrates.

The Biobank’s samples include those from species assessed according to the IUCN Red List categories as extinct in the wild, critically endangered, endangered and vulnerable. The samples are collected from wild (in situ) and captive (ex situ) animals – both alive and dead – and may be blood, skin or tissue, hair and feathers, nails, scales, organs, bones, hooves, sperm or other materials.

This includes important species such as the now-extinct western black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes) and the critically endangered northern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) – of which only two surviving animals remain in the world, both females – as well as whale and dolphin species, various cat species, and even a hybrid between a black and white rhinoceros.

These samples are stored at a range of different temperatures – from room temperature (approximately 21°C) and normal fridge (4°C) and freezer (−20°C) temperatures, to ultralow (−80 °C) and cryogenic (−150°C to −196°C) temperatures.

Kim and her small but very dedicated team – Portia Choma, Khathu Neshunzi, Keneilwe Mosupye, Kgaugelo Matloa and Munaka Mbedzi – are responsible for maintaining all of this, and making them available for national and international studies and projects. 

They’ve even assisted with providing chain of custody samples for setting up of reference databases used for illegal trade, and helped impregnate elephants on the other side of the globe (yes, really).

So how do they do it? Here’s a quick look behind the scenes…

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….