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Cichlids: A Knowledge Base .: Species Articles .: Maintaining Cichlids from the Victorian Basin

Maintaining Cichlids from the Victorian Basin

As aquarium hobbyists, we have likely heard some discussion of the endangered status or extinction of many species of cichlids in Lake Victoria.  As a mere hobbyist, I can not presume to add to the knowledge base of what has already been published by scientists much more knowledgeable than myself.  This article is intended to introduce other aquarium hobbyists to my thoughts and experiences as a Victorian Cichlid enthusiast.

First, a little background on the Lake itself.  Lake Victoria is the largest of several lakes in the Victorian basin.  Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile River.  Several rivers feed into Lake Victoria but only the Nile River flows outward over a waterfall at a hydroelectric generator in Uganda.  The Nile River flows Northward from Lake Victoria into Lake Kyoga which is connected to Lake Nawampassa in the rainy season, then west into Lake Albert.  Lake Kanyaboli, the Yala Swamp and Lake Nabugabo are smaller bodies of water very close to Lake Victoria.  There are other lakes in the Victorian basin such as Lake Kivu, Lake Edward, Lake George and Lake Albert that are north of Lake Tanganyika.  These lakes are collectively referred to as the Victorian satellite lakes.  We generally refer to cichlids from all these lakes as “Victorians” even though some species such as Astatotilapia aeneocolor or Haplochromis limax have never lived in Lake Victoria itself.

While the current situation in Lake Victoria is not the subject of this article, a brief history is necessary to understand the status of the Victorian cichlids in the hobby today.  The Nile Perch (Lates niloticus) was introduced into Lake Victoria in the late 1950’s to create a fishing industry for a population in desperate need of food and employment.  This non-indigenous species existed in the lake for many years before it’s population exploded in the mid 1970’s.  Victorian cichlids were first exported around 1978.  By 1980, this large piscavore had decimated many of the open water species in the lake.  A commercial fishing industry was created, population increased around the lake, and many trees were cut down to smoke the harvested fish.  The deforestation contributed to agricultural runoff  and erosion of silts into the lake.  The increasing human population dumped ever more raw sewage into the lake.  The added nutrients caused a boom in algae growth and the growth of the water hyacinth.  The overpopulation of the water hyacinth on the lake surface blocks the sunlight and reduces the oxygen (eutrophication) in the water by interfering with the water surface to air contact.  The once clear water has become murky, making mate recognition more difficult, and it is thought that some hybridization is occurring.  In the late 1980’s the Lake Victoria Species Survival Program (LV SSP) was formed to preserve a few these cichlids species.  There are currently 16 Victorian species being maintained at 20 zoos/aquariums throughout the United States.  Since the LVSSP now essentially has multiple generations of tank raised cichlids, the hope of re-introduction into the lake is becoming much less viable.  Most of the scientific community does not believe that captive bred cichlids should be reintroduced into Lake Victoria.

Large scale exportation of Victorians has never occurred, and no export occurred from 1998 through 2006.   A few species of wild caught Victorian cichlids became available in limited quantities recently.  These cichlids lived along the shoreline, either in the rocky zone or in the sandy bottom reed beds, where survival from predation was more likely.  As a general rule, many Victorians from the shoreline (referred to as Mbipi) are very similar in temperament and tank maintenance to the Malawi mbuna except that many of them prefer a slightly meatier diet.  Many hobbyists feel that all the Victorians are extremely aggressive, but that is simply not true.  There is a wide variation in the temperament of the mbipi in Lake Victoria just as there is a great deal of variation in the temperament of the mbuna in Lake Malawi.

So what does all this mean to the average Cichlid enthusiast?  Since Lake Victoria is a very young lake, there has not been as long a period of time for the species to diversify.  That not only means that it is difficult at times to identify what species we have, but it also means that these similar looking Victorians are much more likely to hybridize in your aquarium.  If you are going to be a responsible breeder of Victorians, then you must be more willing to maintain a limited number of diverse looking Victorian species in any one tank, or better yet, maintain a single species tank.  It is common for Victorian keepers to add mbuna to the tank since the diet, water conditions and temperament are all very similar.  I myself have never heard of a Victorian cross-breeding with a mbuna, although we all know that anything is possible given the right circumstances.  Fortunately, if you know how to maintain an mbuna tank, then you already know how to maintain a tank with mbipi.  A sand substrate is preferred with lots of rocks for hiding places.  Since many Victorians are insectivores/omnivores there are several species that will do quite well in planted tanks, especially Vallisneria.  The water temperature should be between 72º F and 78º F with a PH preferably greater than 7.4.  A minimum of three females is preferred, however (unlike mbuna) a second male in the tank seems to offer some advantages.  A dominant male Victorian is often relentless in his pursuit of a female to breed with.  The subdominant male will sometimes act as a target fish to partially divert the attention of the dominant male from the constant pursuit of the females.  I’ve found that most of the Victorians I’ve kept have a lifespan of around six years.

A very high percentage of Victorians exhibit at least some red coloration.  I would imagine that one of the main reasons that people buy Victorians is to “get the red” that is lacking in the mbuna.  That often does not work out as well as one might hope.  With only a few notable exceptions (Astatotilapia latifasciata and Paralabidochromis sp “rock kribensis”) most of the Victorian females are a rather bland silver/gray or dull yellow/brown.  If you ever mix the females of many species, you may never be able to reliably separate them again.  If you don’t maintain the dull looking females, then there is a good chance you may never see much color in your males.  Many times, only the one dominant male in the tank will show good color and the subdominant males will look very similar to the dull colored females.  And if your Victorians are housed with another more dominant species, then you might never see the full color potential of any of the Victorians in that tank.  If you plan to keep Victorians, then you also need to carefully plan all the tank inhabitants, or you may be disappointed in the results.  Your fish may never even remotely appear like the stunning pictures of dominant male Victorians in full breeding dress you find on the Internet.

Most experienced hobbyists want to have a definite identification of the species in their tanks, and they also want to know that the species they maintain are “pure”.  Unfortunately, there are no such guarantees possible with most of the Victorians available today.  The vast majority of Victorians have not been scientifically classified and likely never will be, since wild stock from the lake is far from abundant.  Again, since the lake is not that old, the differences between many similar species is very subtle.  It is virtually impossible to tell the difference between many females and it is also nearly impossible to identify many of the males unless they are in full breeding dress.  Unless you are lucky enough to buy some of the few wild exports, the only reliable source for “pure” Victorians is from stock released from one of the LVSSP institutions or from one of the extremely rare hobbyists who has maintained a colony for many, many years.  This lack of certainty is often frustrating to both those new to the world of Victorians as well as experienced hobbyists.

Victorian cichlids are some of the most prolific cichlids you could possibly maintain.  I’ve had both Haplochromis sp. “finebar scrapper” and Astatotilapia aeneocolor breed at less than 1” long and less than six months old.  The brood size is often less than a dozen, but they breed easily and often.  I’ve noticed that many of my Victorians breed until they reach the age of around three years old.  After that age breeding is either non-existent or sporadic.  Being a breeder of Victorian cichlids is easy, but finding another responsible hobbyist interested in maintaining and distributing an endangered species, can often be challenging.  Not every hobbyist wants to dedicate an aquarium to a single species for a long period of time especially if that species is not one of the more colorful ones.  The demand for most Victorians is very low, because the average hobbyist may never have heard of the species you have available.  Information is sparse, so even with proper research, you may never know what species you have in your tank.  Among the reasonably small community of avid Victorian breeders, it is common to give them away to a good home rather than sell them to some one you don’t know.  (With the exception of a few of the more popular and extremely colorful species like Pundamilia nyererei)   If the goal is to preserve the species, then finding your brood a good home with another breeder is far more important than maximizing your income.

I’ve told many people that to maintain Victorians one needs to have a little different attitude.  At least half of all the Victorians I’ve purchased at any club auction or even from reliable breeders has been incorrectly identified by the breeder and more than a handful have been obvious hybrids.  Unfortunately, that’s life as a vic-lover.  You just have to shrug your shoulders and move on.  If you keep one of the less popular Victorian species, you may never know if it is indeed a pure specimen and chances are pretty good that someone will tell you that you have a hybrid.  Most of us like to research as much as we can about our aquarium residents, and the lack of adequate information about Victorians can be frustrating.  But seeing the unusually long extended fins of a bright red male enticing his female is an incredible sight.  And preserving a fish so close to possible extinction in the wild has its rewards as well.

Kevin Bauman

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