Conservation Biology Overview

Our teaching philosophy follows the observation of William Butler Yeats: “Teaching is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire”. The general aims of the Conservation Biology MSc programme are to produce graduates with a broad understanding of conservation issues and to provide them with the scientific background and tools to be able to analyse and solve practical, conservation-related problems. A synthetic, holistic approach is encouraged to problem solving through exposure to a variety of disciplines. Emphasis is also placed on developing oral and written communication skills. We have found that this broad approach to postgraduate education produces graduates who compete successfully in the job market and go on to make a difference in the field. Although emphasis is given to solving conservation challenges in an African context, students are provided with a broad-based education that will stand them in good stead throughout the world. In 2007, in a study published in Conservation Biology, the University of Cape Town was ranked equivalent with the fourth highest North American institution in terms of the impact of its conservation-related research publications.

Who is eligible to enrol?

Applicants to join the course must hold at least a BSc Honours or equivalent qualification - please send a scan of your academic transcripts to Nqubeko - contact details below - if you are unsure if your qualification is considered equivalent. Applicants will be drawn mainly from two groups: young people who have just obtained a degree and wish to become conservation biologists, and qualified, practising nature conservators who wish to update and/or expand their knowledge of the modern theory and practice of conservation biology. The course is an intensive one, and only a limited number of participants are accepted each year. Details regarding registration fees, and approximate accommodation and living expenses in Cape Town are available on request. Applications must reach the address below before the end of August each year to be considered for a place on the course the following year. Applicants will be advised in early October of the outcome. Applicants should please follow the instructions below for the relevant documents and information that must accompany applications.

Structure of the course

The coursework component is intensive and exacting, but represents a huge learning opportunity and the chance to interact with a wide range of excellent conservation biologists, both within and outside the university environment. It includes 7 months of intensive coursework and a 6-month individual research project.

Coursework consists of a series of modules, each taught by experts in their field. Modules typically include lectures, practicals, essays, discussion groups, seminars and field excursions. Reading lists are provided. Emphasis is placed on African examples and case histories.

Appropriate computer courses are available for participants who do not have the relevant skills, but applicants are encouraged to develop at least rudimentary computer skills before enrolling. The Institute has excellent computer and library facilities.

Modules fall into four different sections: an introduction, an ecological core, an interdisciplinary core, and a synthesis. Each module lasts between one and three weeks.

The introduction occupies the first three weeks and includes orientation, an overview of conservation biology, and a week studying the philosophy of science.

The ecological core includes modules in community ecology, population ecology, biodiversity basics, aquatic ecology, molecular ecology, disturbance and restoration ecology, and invasion biology.

Coursework outline

The curriculum is divided into two parts. The first part consists of the regular course modules. The second part consists of a ‘longitudinal’ series of lectures and seminars that are aimed at (1) complementing and augmenting professional skills that may not be covered during courses; and (2) exposing students to relevant ideas that they may not encounter during the rest of the course.

Selection criteria

We accept only 12-14 students each year into the conservation biology masters programme. There are often 2-3 times this many applicants each year, resulting in competition for places. In addition to academic ability, preference is given to candidates with experience in the conservation arena, particularly in an African context. Because of the intensive nature of the programme, students spend a lot of time working closely with their peers. Having students from a diversity of backgrounds contributes significantly to the success of the programme. Consequently we strive each year to select students that combine a mix of youthful enthusiasm and mature experience, as well as a mix of students from first and third world countries. The ideal class comprises roughly one third students from South Africa, one third from the rest of Africa, and one third from the rest of the world.

Since its inception, just over 350 students from more than 40 countries have graduated from the CB programme.

Fees for MSc by Coursework & Dissertation in 2024:

  • Full year: R70 650.00
  • An international fee is charged on the course – currently R45 500 for students from Africa (non SADC countries) and R60 900 for students from the rest of the world. On registration, students can apply for these fees to be reduced. Contact Nqubeko for further information on the international fee.
  • All international students (including SADC) pay an additional administration levy of R5 000.

Funding Opportunities:

Students are strongly advised to seek funding well in advance of the beginning of the course. Many bursary and scholarship opportunities close very early: in mid-year for the following year is quite normal. You may need to apply for a bursary before you complete your application for the course, and certainly before you hear about acceptance.

Some potential funding options are listed below. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list and students are strongly encouraged to also search for other scholarship options.

Applying for the course

If you do not submit the documents requested below directly to the FitzPatrick Institute by August 31,  your application will not be considered by the Selection Committee for the next year's course, even if you have done the online application to UCT.

Start by doing an online application to UCT. Go to the UCT Applicants website here and click on the 'Apply Online' link.  Applications open in April each year.

  • The Academic Programme code is SM004, Academic Plan SM004BIO09
  • Enter 'To be confirmed' in the field where you are requested to provide a research outline.

Documents to submit to the FitzPatrick Institute
Closing Date: 31 August

1. Completed Departmental Application Form.
2. Full Curriculum Vitae giving permanent address and telephone numbers, date of birth, full names, nationality, educational history up to present date, employment history (if any) up to present date, details of computer systems and software packages used to date, details of research publications up to present date.
3. Names, addresses, telephone numbers and e-mail address of at least two referees who can comment on your academic ability, suitability for postgraduate study, and also give a confidential personal evaluation of your sense of initiative and computer literacy. We will contact your referees directly as soon as you submit your application.
4. Degree certificates and undergraduate academic transcript showing marks for each course taken in each year. You may scan and email a copy of these documents with your application, but you will have to provide the Admissions Department with a hard copy - this should be a photocopy of the original, but the photocopy should have an original stamp certifying that it is a true copy of the original transcript. Certified copies of transcripts of any subsequent postgraduate qualifications should also be included.
5. A certified copy of the original TOEFL or PTEEP certificate or other English qualification if English is not your first language.  If you have studied at an institution where the language of tuition is English, and your referees can vouch for your proficiency in English, a TOEFL certificate is not required.
6. A 1 to 2 page typed motivation outlining why you chose to apply for a place on the CB Course, what your long-term career aspirations are and how you think the successful completion of the MSc Conservation Biology course will benefit those aspirations.
7. A covering letter addressed to the Director, FitzPatrick Institute.
8. The application fee is R100 for students from South Africa and SADC countries and R300 for all other students. Students who are currently registered or who have previously graduated from UCT do not have to pay an application fee.
  • Application fees may be paid by cheque, postal order, electronic funds transfer (EFT) or credit card. Click here for full information.

    EFT payments must be made to the following account:
       Beneficiary:  University of Cape Town - No. 1 Sundries Account
       Bank:  Standard Bank SA Ltd
       Branch: Rondebosch, Western Cape
       Branch code: 025009
       Account: 071503854
       Swift code (for international payments): SBZAZAJJ
       Reference numbers: 11196, applicant's first name, applicant's last
       name, e.g. 11196 Sally Smith
  • Cash payments may be made only at the Cashiers Office, Kramer Building, Cross Campus Road, Middle Campus, UCT  Do not send cash by post or courier.
  • Application fees are not refundable.  Paying an application fee does not mean that your application will be successful.
  • Application fees should be paid in South African Rand.

Application queries

Address your application (or any queries) to Nqubeko Hlekwayo (

Should you courier any documents, please address them to:

Ms Nqubeko Hlekwayo
FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology
Room 2.04, John Day Zoology Building
Upper Campus
University of Cape Town
Rondebosch 7701
Cape Town, South Africa

Tel: +27 (0)21 650 3291