If you keep African cichlids, odds are the species you have are endemic to either Lake Malawi or Lake Tanganyika. However, there are many species of cichlids from other bodies of water on the continent, including other large lakes, not the least of which is Lake Victoria. In fact, for this interview, Lake Victoria is front and center. I reached out to a fellow cichlidophile who knows that lake probably as well as anyone in the hobby. A shout out to Pam Chin for facilitating this one!
The Cichlid Stage: You’re widely recognized in the hobby as an expert on cichlids from Lake Victoria, one of the Rift Valley lakes of East Africa. Tell the readers what compelled you to want to keep these beautiful fish?
I don’t consider myself an expert of any kind. I have a love for the haplochromine fish from Africa and try to learn all I can about them. Over the years, I’ve been extremely fortunate to be part of a somewhat exclusive group of hobbyists who share my interest and, collectively, we’ve been able to work with some incredible fish. These first-hand observations are what I write about. Hopefully someone can learn from my findings or my mistakes and have success with these beautiful cichlids. If I may, Lake Victoria is not a rift lake, quite the opposite and a common misconception. Lake Victoria lies between the two arms of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. This is significant because, unlike the other great African lakes of Malawi and Tanganyika, Lake Victoria is a very large, shallow basin mostly fed by seasonal rains. With the prolonged effects of climate change, waters around East Equatorial Africa are shrinking in size, drastically presenting challenges for the species that once inhabited areas that no longer exist.
I can’t recall exactly how I obtained my first Lake Victoria cichlid but I can remember the species and how it led to my haplochromine madness. I had obtained a small group of Haplochromis obliquidens. At that time, I was not a member of any society, and the great reference that was the internet was still in its infancy.I had figured out that H. obliquidens was from Lake Victoria so the quest to learn more was on. I happened upon a mailing list called ‘Cichlid-L’ and on this list was a very knowledgeable gentleman named Dr. Les Kaufman. On a whim, I emailed Dr. Kaufman asking if he might have any information for me on the beautiful fish I was keeping. Dr. Kaufman had spent the previous ten years trouncing around Lake Victoria relaying the plight of the great lake and its creatures to the rest of the world. To my delight, Dr. Kaufman replied to my novice question and emailed a reply, quickly explaining to me that the fish I had was almost certainly Astatotilapia sp. ‘thick skin’ and that H. obliquidens hadn’t been seen for years and was feared extinct. Dr. Kaufman was very generous with allowing time in his busy schedule to answer my queries for many years after. I consider him one of my two mentors in the fish world and the primary source of my infatuation with Lake Victoria, and really all haplochromine cichlids. I try to model how I treat haplochromine novices, who have questions for me, on how he patiently answered my rookie queries.
TCS: The Victorian haplochromine population has really taken a beating over the past several decades. Can you talk a little about this and what can be done to mitigate continued loss?
It is true that the haplochromines of Lake Victoria have had a rough time, the last 40 years in particular. Years of unchecked pollution and raw sewage being fed directly into the lake are just one of the ecological hardships that come with a rapidly growing population and industrialization around the lake shore. Deforestation beginning around the turn of the 19th century has led to silt and agricultural chemicals leeching into the waters and have drastically decreased water clarity, leading to problems (some think) of hybridization among the many closely related cichlid species. Invasive species such as water hyacinth, Malaysian trumpet snails and of course, the Nile perch, have put much stress on the native fish populations of Lake Victoria.
Perhaps the most publicized invasive that has had a huge impact on the native fauna has been Lates niloticus, the Nile perch. This large, predatory species was introduced into Ugandan waters in the 1950s. The idea was to create a sport fishery for the British colonists at the time. All went well for many years. There was really no observed effect until the early 1980s. Then things changed rapidly. The Nile perch population exploded and they grew huge on a diet of haplochromines. Most open water fish such as the snail eaters, piscivorous cichlids, and open water schooling species were decimated. No one knows for certain how many species were lost, but estimations range from 100-500. As the cichlids disappeared, the Nile perch population began to implode, having eaten all that could be easily taken. They turned to eating native shrimp and then cannibalizing each other. While this sounds good for the surviving haplochromine species, the perch had become a huge fishery. The industry employed thousands. The decline of the Nile perch stressed an already impoverished region, leading to a host of social problems that are still being battled today.
It’s not all bad, though! Many of the furu (a native word to describe the colorful little haplochromines used mainly as bait fish) found refuge among the rocky areas surrounding the lake and its many islands. These fish seem to have withstood the rigors of the past decades largely intact. Recently, some of the fish thought to be extinct have once again shown up in fishermen’s catches. I am extremely fortunate to have a wonderful friend who travels regularly to the region and brings me back many wild species from Lake Victoria to work with. As the fry grow, we have found numerous surprises such as Haplochromis lividus, a species that hadn’t been seen for many years. It is now alive and well in the hobby thanks to the work of dedicated hobbyists. Modern Lake Victoria is far from being a stable waterway. The many stressors of the past are still there, and I feel there is a need to establish populations of existing fish in captivity just in case of a sudden ecological disaster. We in the hobby have already proven that a case could be made for our being the best stewards for long-term survival of many aquatic species.
TCS: For readers unfamiliar with the CARES Preservation Program, can you describe what it is, your role, and how cichlidophiles can participate?
My beloved CARES Program! In 2001 Claudia Dickinson had a vision for a hobbyist driven Species Survival Program (SSP). Dr. Paul Loiselle (my other mentor), together with Claudia, set a framework up for what would become, fourteen years later, a highly successful SSP utilizing the tools collectively held by the average hobbyists. CARES is an acronym representing Conservation, Awareness, Recognition, Education, and Support. Early on we recognized that many of the fish we already maintain in the hobby are threatened or even extinct in their native waters. The white cloud mountain minnow (Tanichthys albonubes) is a prime example of this. This fish is all but extinct in the wild but doing well and being reproduced in the aquarium hobby.
Just as my beloved haplochromines are known to do so quickly, CARES too is rapidly evolving. One goal that we are close to realizing is to have a master registry constantly maintained of the threatened species that aquarists are keeping. Ideally, we want the hobbyists to work with the fish long-term and, if possible, reproduce it so that others may also work with the species. Unfortunately, each year we add more fish to the CARES Priority list. This is a listing of species that need our help if they are to survive long-term. It is assembled by some of the top explorers and ichthyologists that have first-hand knowledge of the physical situations where these fish are found. There may well be a time when the fish you keep no longer has a wild habitat left and all that remains are captive populations. This is in fact the case with several species already, and many more on the brink. We, as hobbyists, can save entire species if we are organized and work together and in the CARES program, we can and are.
My contribution to CARES is quite insignificant when compared to some of the others who have dedicated so much time to making this all work. Claudia Dickinson may be the glue that holds everything together but two others, Leslie Dick and Klaus Steinhaus, have put in untold hours towards CARES and remain major pillars in the program. A complete listing of CARES personnel can be found at the CARES website, www.caresforfish.org.
I have been involved in the CARES for Education program and, more specifically, Mountain Valley Middle School CARES. Our program consisted of an ‘After School CARES Aquarium Club’ where we learned about the basics of maintaining an aquarium, caring for fish, and, eventually, spawning endangered species while passing those fry on to other institutions. This was one of the most rewarding activities I’ve ever been involved in. It has been so enlightening to see many of those middle school students of years past remain accomplished aquarists to this day.
I also oversee the Lake Victoria portion of the CARES Priority list and am an active participant in the program itself. I work with several CARES cichlid species (and also a livebearer, but don’t tell anyone).
Many aquarium clubs around the country (and now internationally) have CARES Programs. This is perhaps the best way to become involved in CARES. These clubs (listed on the website) can help you get started and might even be a good source to locate the fish you choose to save. If you are not a member of any local club or regional society that has implemented a CARES program, fear not. There is a CARES for Individuals Program that allows anyone without an organized affiliation to participate. If you require further information, reach out to any CARES team coordinator and we will be happy to help! All registrations are handled online, so we have done all we can to ensure the process is as painless as possible.
TCS: You host an Internet radio show called ‘Let’s Talk about Cichlids.’ For readers who’ve never heard of the show, talk a little about it and where/how readers can tune in.
I love my show! We started a talk show based loosely on cichlid fish, but it usually breaks down into foolishness before we sign off. It’s a lot of fun and all the shows are archived. When we first started, my co-host Ken McKeighen and I were doing them quite regularly. We had a lot of great people on, and it was always a lot of fun. As time has gone on, my life and schedule have changed. I haven’t done a show for some time but I was assured that the door is always open whenever my schedule would allow. I intend to start these up again very soon. I have an idea for a video show as well that I’m still milling over in my head. I won’t get into this too much but I think it would be highly entertaining and more importantly, fun for me!
TCS: For cichlid keepers who primarily house African species from Lake Malawi or Lake Tanganyika, what would you say to convince them to give Victorians a try?
This may seem like a strange answer but, if people are keeping a fish species or are interested in a specific group of fishes, stay with what makes you happy. Don’t try another group of fish just because someone thinks you should. Keep what you enjoy! Many people who see Lake Victoria cichlids for the first time are enthralled by the bright colors. Most are very easy to keep and make good aquarium species. This can be said of the other cichlid families as well. I love haplochromines, but that doesn’t mean you have to. As long as you don’t keep those hideous deformed hybrids, you’re okay with me.
TCS: What Victorian species would you recommend for novice cichlid keepers? How about the more experienced cichlidophiles who’ve never kept any?
There are several Lake Victoria cichlids that would make good entry level species for the novice aquarist. Ideally you would want something with bright coloration and somewhat forgiving when it comes to oversights or mistakes that may harm more sensitive fishes. You also want something that can be easily spawned so you can witness the wonderful breeding sequence that haplochromines have. I would recommend a fish such as Xystichromis phytophagus, commonly called the Christmas fulu or Ptyochromis sp. ‘salmon,’ a beautiful snail eater from the Kenyan waters of Lake Victoria. If a more experienced hobbyist is looking for a challenge, then some of the more aggressive species such as Pundamilia nyererei and Neochromis omnicaeruleus can offer the same challenges that Lake Malawi mbuna do. Some of my favorite fish are the paedophages (fry eaters) from the genus Lipochromis. Many people categorize all Lake Victorian fish together and clump care and tank preparation as if they were all one species. Lake Victoria contains hundreds of species with varied diets, temperaments, and parental care. One should always research before keeping any fish but this is especially true with haplochromines.
TCS: What are some of your favorite cichlid species to keep and why?
I have kind of mentioned that I have an affinity for piscivores and paedophages from Lake Victoria but I really like unusual fish or species for which not much is known. I am currently working with a group of Astatotilapia tweddlei from Lake Chilwa that intrigue me.My friend Lawrence Kent routinely sends me wild fish from Lake Victoria, which are always fun to grow and to see if they might be a previously described species or one never previously known. Currently I am preparing tank space for several Lake Kivu species. This is exciting, as fish from this lake have not been in the hobby for many years. In all honesty, the fish I value most are the ones that were given to me by my friends throughout the years. It’s nice to gaze into one of my aquariums and realize that a friend thought enough of me to want me to have fish from his or her collection. Those mean the most to me regardless of species.
TCS: I’m going to invent a formal term here and pretend it represents the highest accolade for a cichlid aquarist – Master Cichlid Keeper. If such a title existed, what would you consider some criteria to receive it?
What an unusual question. You have me thinking! I’ve been so fortunate to learn from many people whom I would consider Master Cichlid Keepers so let me think about them and see what I can come up with as criteria. Firstly, you would need experience…and lots of experience! I think another attribute would have to be ingenuity. I have been blown away with some of the inventions and methods of doing things that I’ve witnessed others enacting. I recall a gentleman with a mated pair of Oscars. He had this pair conditioned to raise the eggs of other cichlids as though they were their own. I had never seen that before or since. You can imagine how strange it was to see a large pair of Oscars rearing hundreds of angelfish fry. Another friend was the first to discover that Synodontis multipunctatus, the Lake Tanganyikan catfish, was a cookoo spawner. Not only did he figure this out and successfully spawn them, he knew which fish were the best hosts and how long he could use them for (after several spawns the haplochromine would seem to get wise that she was not brooding cichlid fry). This is Master Cichlid Keeper stuff. I tend to relate success with cichlids to not only keeping them alive but successfully reproducing them as well. I think a Master Cichlid Keeper would have bred a great many species. Also you have to relate your successes in some manner so that others can learn from you. Be it presentations at aquarium societies, writing articles, posting pictures and videos, you can’t keep knowledge to yourself. You must be willing to share with others. I am very lucky to know several people that meet all the above criteria. I have learned much from my fish friends!