The Kruger National Park is more than just a park. It is also an official branch of a nationwide bank, dealing in deposits and withdrawals and savings, but the clients at the bank are wildlife specialists and the currency at hand is blood, sperm, skin, hair, tusks, horns and other biological matter.
For more than a decade, the Sanparks Veterinary Wildlife Services team has been storing biological material gathered during their routine operations in huge walk-in freezers at Skukuza, creating a biobank. This biobank now forms part of a nationwide project, funded by the department of science and technology.
BiobankSA started in 2002, and draws together such organisations as Sanparks, the Onderstepoort Veterinary Institute, the Peace Parks Foundation, the Wildlife Biological Resource Centre, the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, the University of Cape Town, the Agricultural Research Council, the Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and Taurus Livestock Improvement.
There are many other stakeholders in the BiobankSA project, ranging from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) to game farmers to museums. Contained in the Skukuza 'vault' of the biobank are samples taken from about sixteen wildlife species, gathered over years of veterinary fieldwork.
Samples in the freezer come from black and white rhino, buffalo, lion, hyena, warthog, elephant, leopard, giraffe, bushbuck, sable, wild dog, roan, Lichtenstein hartebeest, zebra and African wild cats. The samples are taken during routine operations, such as game capture, snare removal or postmortems of animals that have an unknown cause of death or are suspected to have suffered from some disease.
While few people would be surprised to know that the vets collect blood samples for biobanking during their work, more surprising is the fact that the biobank also stores sperm and eggs from animals of a reproductive age. Other biomaterials lodged in the bank include tusk and horn shavings, hair and feathers, skin and other tissue samples from various organs including the liver, heart, lungs, kidney and spleen.
Samples are often collected out in the bush under primitive field conditions, and keeping them fresh until they can be processed at Skukuza or other laboratories is a priority. Cooler boxes and mobile fridges play an important role here, although once processed some of the samples are stored in freezers at around -20°C, or even more strictly preserved in liquid nitrogen at -196°C.
Through the BiobankSA project, researchers from around South Africa and the rest of the world can have access to the physical samples stored at various 'branches' of the bank to carry out scientific studies.
The researchers can also access the database of records from tests that were carried out on the samples when they were collected. Blood is often analysed soon after being collected, giving an indication of an animal's general well being. Results of such analyses are entered into a database, which can be linked into the central database of BiobankSA, providing a wealth of information on all kinds of different animals.
Information from the samples can be used for many different types of projects. From DNA analysis carried out on biobanked samples researchers can figure out how much inbreeding has happened in a particular species, or which animals are related to others in captive populations.
Genetic information can also give clues as to how animals migrate or spread out between herds in different areas. Some of the hairs kept by the biobank at Skukuza have been used to figure out what Kruger's buffalo and elephants have been eating, while blood extracts from captured giraffe have also been analysed for nutrients. Another study looked at blood samples taken from buffalo in Kruger to see what compounds from plants had made their way into the blood serum.
The 'bank manager' of Kruger's biobank is Jenny Joubert, a veterinary technologist with the Veterinary Wildlife Services. She helps collect, process and safely store the biological samples, ensuring that they are in good condition should anyone ever wish to make a withdrawal from the biobank.
She also collects and stores the data already gathered from the samples. Jenny comments, "Sanparks have kept every sample that has been collected since the biobank was established. At this stage it is said that samples that are stored correctly can be kept indefinitely, however, more research is needed to confirm this statement."
If a researcher has a project that has been approved by Sanparks, they can gain access to the biobank, and carry out further research on stored samples. Blood is commonly studied for nutritional information, or can be used to look for disease antibodies. Although Sanparks does not do so, sperm samples that have been biobanked can be thawed and used to artificially inseminate captive animals, such as occurred with eland at the Johannesburg Zoo.
Tissue samples can also be defrosted and rejuvenated in laboratories to create cultures of growing cells that allow some experimentation without involving actual animals. Samples from diseased animals can also be used to see how diseases spread within and between animals.
As the Veterinary Wildlife Services team goes about their daily business in Kruger and South Africa's other national parks, they collect more and more samples to 'save' in the biobank, creating a major inventory of biological assets that pay useful dividends to the stakeholders in the business of conservation.
By Melissa Wray
In Kruger National Park