Despite the fact that mollusc species play an important role in many aquatic ecosystems, little is known about their biodiversity and conservation genetics. Freshwater pearl mussel (Margaritifera margaritifera L.) populations are seriously declining all over Europe and a variety of conservation programs are being established to support the remaining endangered central European populations. In order to provide guidelines for conservation strategies and management programs, we investigated the genetic structure of 24 freshwater pearl mussel populations originating from five major central European drainages including Elbe, Danube, Rhine, Maas and Weser, representing the last and most important populations in this area. We present a nondestructive sampling method of haemolymph for DNA analyses, which is applicable for endangered bivalves. The analyses of nine microsatellite loci with different levels of polymorphism revealed a high degree of fragmented population structure and very different levels of genetic diversity within populations. These patterns can be explained by historical and demographic effects and have been enforced by anthropogenic activities. Even within drainages, distinct conservation units were detected, as revealed from high FST values, private alleles and genetic distance measures. Populations sampled close to contact zones between main drainage systems showed lowest levels of correct assignment to present-day drainage systems. Populations with high priority for conservation should not only be selected by means of census population size and geographical distance to other populations. Instead, detailed genetic analyses are mandatory for revealing differentiation and diversity parameters, which should be combined with ecological criteria for sustainable conservation and recovery programs.