Oliver Lucanus interview

If I asked you to compile a list of cichlidophiles you know 1) who make regular trips to cichlid locales to collect fish, 2) who regularly speak at cichlid conventions, and 3) and whose name you hear regularly in the hobby, how many people would be on that list? I bet your list wouldn’t be very long but I also bet that Oliver Lucanus would be on it.

Pictured is Oliver doing what he does…alot. Photo courtesy of Oliver Lucanus.

At the OCA 25th Extravaganza back in November, I attended Oliver’s presentations. They were chockfull of great photos and were very informative. After his second talk, I introduced myself and the blog. I asked him if he would be interested in doing an interview. He smiled and said, “sure”.

You may know Oliver as a long time aquarist and wildlife photographer. What you may not know is that he’s also been importing fish for more than 30 years. Furthermore, he’s an author, who’s book “Below Water – the Amazon” has become a favorite of cichlid hobbyists, especially those keeping SA fish. In fact, he has a new book coming out soon titled, “Xingu – Below Water”. For those unfamiliar, the Xingu is a tributary river of the Amazon in Brazil. At over 1,000 miles long, the Xingu runs north to south and is home to some of the most beautiful and fascinating fishes in the world. Oliver’s experience diving and collecting in this river is expansive, and his photos of cichlids in their natural habitat are amazing.

Let’s go!

As a long-time aquarist, where does your attraction to cichlids originate? How did it start?

Growing up in Germany in the 80s was maybe the best time our hobby has ever seen. If you think back to how many fish first arrived during those years and how our understanding of cichlid diversity expanded at that time, you can see that new fish were out every week. From Central America, West Africa, Tanganyika, Malawi and of course South America. There has never been a period since then with that many new fish.

I started with Julidochromis dickfeldi. It was my first cichlid. Later, a neighbour gave me Pelvicachromis pulcher, so with limited space I soon had cichlids everywhere possible.

You are a fish importer and have been for three decades. What are some things you believe readers should know about cichlid importing that they most likely don’t?

Wild fish, for the most part are a sustainable resource, however the alternatives for people where wild caught fish come from are always worse: gold mining, logging, commercial fishing, etc. So while overfishing for the ornamental trade is no doubt an issue for some highly endemic species, I think it is important to buy sustainably sourced wild fish whenever possible. I would never buy tank raised cardinal tetras, for example. If you saw the number of families whose livelihood depends on that species, it makes no sense to buy them from a commercial farm in Asia. The problem is that there is no information out there, because only a few people could put a list of species together that is over-collected, or not caught in a sustainable way. The bigger issue is likely in Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika. It would be nice if nature remained untouched, but as long as people are on this planet in these numbers, we must allow them to profit from their resources somehow, or else they will not see value in natural spaces. A family that earns money from the forest and streams will protect those habitats.

How do you think cichlid importing will change in the next 10 years?

Our hobby is getting smaller, but also the number of cichlids we have not yet seen is getting really small. If you go to Juan Miguel’s site, The Cichlid Room Companion, and look at what photos of cichlids he is missing, it is a good indication that we know a lot. Thus, unless someone finds the likely extinct Victorian cichlids, or manages a way to bring deep water species from the other Rift Lakes, we may not see much really exciting stuff – and new fish get people excited. This is where catfish have an advantage, because there are so many we have not seen, and breeding them is a far greater challenge than cichlids.

The hobby is now all online, so people get their information instantly and things are published to Facebook so fast. In a way, that means that pet stores have to really be good to survive, but also that we are all much more informed from more sources. Usually new fish show up on my company Facebook page within a week of their arrival, where before I would wait until I had them in perfect condition and in breeding colour in a magazine.

Still, I believe that every serious aquarist should at least have an Amazonas Magazine in their home (and Cichlid News Magazine for cichlid keepers), as well as every book that covers the fish they keep, even in the digital version. Also, I think we can get industry more involved in the hobby side of things – they have a vested interest in it, even if our numbers of serious aquarists are quite small.

If you look at how planted aquaria have branched out and sort of found new life with new “aquatic gardeners.” You can see it is actually possible to fascinate new people enough, who never thought of having an aquarium at home, to go out and buy one. Now, we won’t do that with 12 cichlids in a tank with broken pottery and some white plumbing parts, but we may just do that if people see a pair of cichlids guarding their fry in a nicely set up aquarium.

In 2004, you did an interview with Juan Miguel. In that interview, he asked you the following: “In your opinion, what is the state of the International hobby and associations? What do you see as the future?” That was 15 years ago, and you were not optimistic then. Fast forward to today. Has your view changed? Please talk about that.

I still feel that the reptile hobby has totally surpassed us. How many children were at recent OCA and ACA events? How many people under 40? To say that our “crowd” is not very diverse is an understatement. Therefore, if we cannot get new people excited about our hobby, and especially about the aspects of “nature” and “conservation” that have a real root in the cichlid hobby, we may end up falling more and more behind.

We can argue this endlessly but, to me, someone with hybrid flower horns or all male Haplochromis in an aquarium is not a cichlid keeper, still an aquarist, but just missing the most fascinating point of cichlids – the fact that they guard their young.

Schools should have aquariums, so maybe that would be the key. Public aquariums are popular, so how come our hobby cannot convey that same fascination?

You’ve made many visits to South America, specifically Brazil and the Amazon River system, where numerous cichlid genera are endemic. What are your favorite cichlids to observe in their natural environment there and why?

I think any cichlid is interesting, especially when it has young. In nature, I really like Bujurquina because of the crazy brood care where they will put the eggs on a piece of wood and carry it around. I also like Retroculus, which do even crazier stuff – excavating a giant nest and moving it all every day. But the large Crenicichla and Cichla are the most fun, because breeding them in the aquarium is at times possible, but you will never see their complex behaviour in an aquarium. In the case of the large Crenicichla, can you think of another fish that will have the babies around for a year?

Which genera or species do you think are the most threatened in South America and why?

I think we are looking at a moving target, because with the total devastation in the Amazon at the moment, many habitats will disappear, or be changed permanently. Add to that the deforestation and fires with industrial agriculture, agrochemicals, gold mining, cattle farming, urban sprawl and all the dams, and we will be losing species at a rapid rate. The ones most threatened by all this are the highly endemic fish, so we will lose species with small distributions first. Imagine an Apistogramma from some small creek in the upper Amazon, and that area is levelled by the creation of a palm oil plantation. That Apistogramma will be gone in a year.

My great worry right now would be for Krobia xinguensis. I have been to the Xingu many times now and seen this fish only once. Most of their habitats are totally destroyed. This sort of thing is really difficult to assess, because we don’t know what specialists will do when anthropomorphic (human caused) change modifies their habitats.

I have not mentioned climate change, but it will make species disappear in the near future. For example, the Alcolapia, Danakilia, and Iranocichla species will be vulnerable to it, as will species in Mexico. If you look at how many species we have already lost, in Lake Victoria and in Madagascar for example, you can see what is coming.

I also have not mentioned the effect of introduced species. Of course, that is devastating but I feel that responsible cichlid keepers know what happens when you introduce flower horn cichlids into an Indonesian lake with a dozen endemic shrimp species that are less than 1” in adult size.  It is essentially the same effect as introducing Nile Perch in Lake Victoria, only in Indonesia cichlids are the villain.

What are some SA cichlid species that you would like to see more of in the hobby and why?

We know very little about breeding Crenicichla, especially the larger species. In fact, I just wrote about this in Cichlid News. And personally, I would love any benthic (deep water) species from Malawi or Tanganyika – all those grey and brown fish that nobody has kept interest me. I saw some photos of benthic Aulonocaras, and while I have not kept any Lake Malawi fish in over 20 years, I think I would empty a 200-gallon tank right away to get something like that.

I would like to see the hobby get more organized, in a way like Planetcatfish.com, where we can track which users are keeping what species. Not necessarily to exchange fishes, but I think it would help us track when a fish is about to disappear from the hobby. Some rare fishes get imported only once, and if they are not “spectacular” they will disappear after a year. I think we need to make more of an effort to see who keeps what, the way the CARES Preservation Program is set up, but for all species, because non-CARES fish are not captured in that data management.

You are very passionate about nature conservation. This includes species conservation. What can readers do to participate in cichlid conservation activities?

I am mostly interested in tracking change, and ecosystems as a whole. At home I am moving away from species tanks and trying to keep the cichlid with the catfish, the barb/tetra, the eel and whatever else that would not only occur in the same habitat, but also in the same sector of the habitat. It is back to the community aquarium, but far more challenging.

I think people need to get involved on their level. Conservation and getting involved in any common cause is really difficult to define – because it means different things to different people. What I believe people do not think about enough is just how amazing it is that they have a fish at their home and it is breeding. Somewhere, the year before they got that fish, a man living in a house without electricity and no dive training brought that fish from some underwater rock pile and managed to keep it alive. The fish then took three international flights in a plastic bag before ending up in your basement. That fish is a privilege, in more ways than one, because any hobby is a privilege to begin with. I think this is also where the reptile hobby has us beat, because they’ve managed to convey that excitement to a larger audience. Even people that have never had pets will watch a guy catch a gecko on TV for an hour.

Your latest book, Xingu – Below Water, is nearing release. It took a lot of time and effort to put that book together (e.g., take the photos, write). What is Oliver’s next big project?

Yes, this one was much more difficult to put together. That is why I did it together with Leandro Sousa. He is an amazing photographer and scientist but also lives right on the river. We spent hundreds of hours in the river for this, so I think it is really good and has much more information. We kind of pushed each other to do this right, and it will be quite different from what people are used to in a fish book. The book is peer reviewed as a scientific publication also. That is a bit different from other books about a habitat. Leandro and I work well together and we will do another book, but I cannot yet say which region, other than Brazil.

My personal big project is to do more things on YouTube, just to reach more people for my other project, which I will leave for your last question. Thus, my goal is to bring some of the science that is relevant to the hobby onto a platform where it is more palatable than in a 20-page PDF. We can do so much now with short films and YouTube, so I think it is time to look at how we can use multimedia tools to reach a wider audience. Of course, I am about 10 years late with this, but it will hopefully be a bit different from what other people are doing. See my YouTube channel.

Is there anything we didn’t cover above that you would like to add regarding cichlid keeping and the hobby?

My interest in fish habitats kind of brought me to the Remote Sensing Lab at McGill University in Canada, because I wanted to better understand how geography and change affects the distribution of our fishes, and why what fish is where. Since then, I have actually started working there part time (for the Canadian Airborne Biodiversity Observatory) where we have started a research project dedicated to fish at McGill.

The “Fish + Forest” project basically uses remote sensing techniques to assess fish habitats. We can do everything from evaluating satellite images over time to look at forest loss, agriculture, urbanization, surface water, mining, and even look at sub surface water to create 3D models of whole habitats or even an individual rock. Maybe long term we can have an effect on some policy decisions, because I believe that remote sensing is ideal to quantify change and, combined with ground-based observations, it can make for some really interesting results. We will try to convey some of that to the aquarium hobby also. We are working on projects on several continents, all tied to fish in one way or another.

Part of this effort is to make some of the science available for people to see habitats, but where I would like to end up is that people could literally 3D print a habitat at home. These could be used for an aquarium background or maybe in a school, to explain how an ecosystem works. We already have some of the 3D models online where people can get a feel for what they look like.  You can actually manipulate the model, change viewpoints, and zoom in or measure distances. But I want to do some more easy-to-understand films about what it can be used for. You can already see some of these things on the project’s website.

Thank you all for your time. It is always fun to see people engaged in our hobby!

Leave a Comment