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Eastern Cape conservationist Werner Conradie’s ground-breaking research in the Okavango Delta has not only yielded eight new species but given us a deeper understanding of the world-renowned area’s critical importance to both human and animal life.


PhD graduate and herpetologist Dr Werner Conradie (right) celebrates with his supervisor, Professor Jan Venter, at Nelson Mandela University’s graduation ceremony in George this month. His research focused on amphibian and reptile diversity. Nature photos: Kostadin Luchansky

The Curator of Herpetology at Gqeberha’s iconic Bayworld complex was on 5 April awarded a doctorate in nature conservation at Nelson Mandela University’s George Campus, which kicked off the institution’s 2024 graduation season for more than 5600 students.

His thesis, ‘Herpetofaunal diversity and affiliations of the Okavango River Basin, with specific focus on the Angolan headwaters’, documented the amphibian and reptile diversity of one of southern Africa’s most understudied regions.

The research area covered poorly surveyed parts of south-eastern Angola, including the headwaters of the famous Basin, which is one of the world’s largest inland deltas.

“For years, due to the civil war, this region was inaccessible to scientists and thus poorly documented,” Dr Conradie explained. “Through collaborative projects of various international organisations, including the National Okavango Wilderness Project, we aimed to rectify this gap in knowledge.”

Between 2012 and 2019, Dr Conradie and his team surveyed the rivers from their source to the Okavango Delta, documenting numerous species of reptiles and amphibians – some never recorded in Angola – and some representing new species.

“Additionally, the novel data generated allowed us to identify the headwaters as an area of high diversity and endemism that translates to high conservation importance.

“By protecting the headwaters of the Okavango River Basin, we in essence protect the world-renowned Delta and its abundance of wildlife, together with the lifeline these waters provide to humans as well.”

Life-long love of nature

Born in George along the southern Cape coast, Dr Conradie was raised in Willowmore, a small Karoo town in the Eastern Cape, with his two brothers, Nico and Renardo, and parents Ico and Annelene, and later Uniondale, where he matriculated in 2000.

“I have been interested in nature all my life. I was bringing creatures home to keep in the bathtub from a young age and always had pets,” he said. “Instead of doing sports, I visited museums.”

Fascinated by the earth and all its wonders, Dr Conradie took Agricultural Science as an extra subject at school and dreamed of studying nature conservation.

He embarked on a Bachelor of Science degree at then Potchefstroom University (now North-West University), majoring in zoology and biochemistry, and also holds an MSc in Environmental Science.

He worked as a general lab and field work assistant for the African Amphibian Conservation Research Group (AACRG) before qualifying as a teacher of Physical Sciences at PJ Olivier High School in Makhanda (then Grahamstown).

These days, however, he has come home to his heart’s work: herpetology. Dr Conradie is a happy resident in Gqeberha with his wife, Christa, also a trained scientist who holds a master’s degree and teaches at Victoria Park High School. Dr Conradie has held the position of Bayworld ‘s Curator of Herpetology since 2011, after being appointed assistant curator in 2007.

He has special interests in the taxonomy of amphibians and reptiles in southern Africa, focusing on the Eastern Cape, northern Mozambique and Angola. He has published numerous peer-reviewed scientific papers on the topic and has described 43 species new to science.

Okavango Delta a jewel in Africa’s crown

Very few people realise that the Delta’s origins lie in the Angolan highlands, said Dr Conradie, and that the poorly accessed river sources eventually become the massive ecotourism destination that everybody knows.

“Due to past civil wars, the area was neglected, but ironically well protected, thanks to its isolation and the danger of land mines. As the lands were cleared, the exploitation of natural resources increased, having potential impact on the water quality and quantity, and eventually a negative downstream impact on the famous Okavango Delta and everything dependent on it.

“This study showed the massive ecological riches the Angolan highlands possess, and provides background, as well as assessments, of present herpetological species.”

Dr Conradie’s graduation from Mandela University’s George Campus is in line with his focus on long-term sustainability in both Africa and the world.

The George Campus is well-known for its sustainability-focused qualifications, aimed at positioning the satellite institution as a world-class knowledge catalyst for the green economy, with various study focus areas including forestry, agricultural management, wood technology, nature conservation and veld fire management.

Understanding the crucial importance of protecting the Angolan headwaters is key, said Dr Conradie, and the support that he received at George Campus from his supervisor, Professor Jan Venter, and other role players was testament to the fact that the campus is committed to its conservation goals.

“Due to the fact that activity around the Angolan headwaters is slowly increasing, it is in higher danger of being exploited for its natural resources (timber, bushmeat, honey, etc.),” he explained.

“If sustainable usage practices are not implemented in these early stages, and ecological education is not provided, the area will degrade, and the damage will cascade down to the Okavango Delta.

“Not only does this directly impact the local human population around the headwaters, but also both wildlife and human presence in Namibia and Botswana. People from around the world visit the Okavango Delta for its natural beauty, providing the country with a much-needed economical boost and motivation to sustain this area.

“Losing the quality of this complex river system in these countries would result in immeasurable loss, both economically and ecologically.”

For all your graduation content across your social media platforms, please use #MandelaUniGrad24. We would love to collate, share and celebrate this amazing achievement with you on official University platforms.

Contact information
Mrs Debbie Derry
Deputy Director: Communication
Tel: 041 504 3057