Open invitation by Anton Lamboj

The issue of endangered fish species is always at the heart of discussions amongst aquarists. Some months ago I followed a particular discussion on helping to preserve Madagascan cichlids in the wild. I was particularly interested in considerations about what can aquarists do to promote fish living in their natural habitats, including re-introduction programmes where necessary.

At the time it was not possible for me to enter the discussion. I would now like to re-animate it, focussing not only on Madagascan cichlids but on other endangered fish species too.

It seems to me that conservation programmes in the wild, including re-introduction, may well simply not work. My experience when collecting indicates that environmental manipulations by humans (deforestation, introduction of new species in established habitats, pollution of waters etc.) are more than likely to undermine the success of such programmes. Similar concerns have been voiced by other aquarists and scientists alike.

Another reason inhibiting the possibilities of success of such programmes is that rallying support for them may be cumbersome. This has to do with the motives behind the aquarists’ interest in endangered species. Surely some people do genuinely care about the fish living in their natural habitat. However, as the hobby gets spread, fish and in particular endangered species are continually acquiring an ever rising commercial value for ornamental purposes. Accordingly nature is seen as a “resource” for the hobby; it supplies fish to meet the rising demands for new species at home.  In short, the priority for a considerable number of aquarists is to have the fish in their tanks rather than to protect them in the wild. Whether we like it or not, we are consumers. 

Although this desire may sound rather “selfish” it is, in my view, legitimate. But if this is our motive then it would be preferable to admit it. There is no point trying to conceal it under talks about re-introduction and intervention in the wild. Admitting the facts will allow us to make realistic plans, which are more likely to succeed. In my view this has the added advantage that it can also protect species which, unknown to us till now, are still in danger of being extinct.

Working with endangered species in our tanks may have a bigger chance of success than trying to change the course of events threatening natural habitats, at least as a first step towards preservation. This is due to a variety of other reasons. Notably, one of them is the control we have over our tanks, which clearly we don’t have over natural habitats.

By “working” I strictly refer to taking care of the fish in such a way that they remain alive and healthy and their spawn is spread in the hobby. Over the years aquarists bought and collected species for their tanks knowing that these species were inhabiting restricted and “vulnerable” areas.  These fish were observed and studied mainly to satisfy our desire to learn as much as we could about them – or were simply possessed with pride due to their rarity. Yet most of us never took care to protect these species in the sense of ensuring that the eventual loss of the specimens collected in the wild will not be tautologous with the permanent loss of the species. Only a few, in relation to the overall-community, have been committed to breeding a species over a longer period of time, regardless of market prices, rarity, difficulty or so on. So, fortunately, there are still available stocks of e.g. Melanochromis auratus, Nimbochromis venustus, Pseudotropheus tropheopsNeolamprologus tetracanthus, Julidochromis ornatus, Tropheus cf moori “Magara” and others. Without the need for new imports, few enthusiasts are still in possession of long-known species or morphs of excellent standard.

Currently the situation regarding collection in the wild is rapidly changing. This is not just due to the fact that more and more species are becoming rare in the wild because of environmental changes or overfishing. The rivers and lakes which have been resourcing our hobby are getting “regulated” and as a result less accessible. For example, Sri Lanka doesn’t allow any more the collection and export of  Malpulutta kretseri  as well as some other species. Brazil is another prime example of a country limiting or fully restricting access to its natural habitats. Of course we shouldn’t forget the “positive” lists discussed by a number of countries over the years. International regulations such as CITES include an ever-growing number of species.

This could mean that in a near future our ability to access a number of species will get progressively extremely limited. Hobbyists may even witness situations such as these currently applying to orchids in the wild. The plants are highly “protected” in the wild; trade of non-bred specimens is restricted by CITES and many other regulations. Anybody trying to collect wild specimens breaks a multitude of laws and is liable to prosecution. This applies regardless, even when the single plant to be collected is a plant saved from a caterpillar, building a new road for gold mining, or collected from an area scheduled to be burnt to make a new farmland. Fortunately orchid nurseries are well established; this enables hobbyists to continue possessing enjoying their favourite plants.

In addition to the dangers highlighted above, further regulations may prevent or totally ban some species from being successfully kept and spread in the hobby. Here is a true story: A friend of mine is breeding humming birds. He is doing it very sucessfully. He is connected with other breeders in Europe, but he cannot export the spawns of his birds to every European country. Why? Not because of CITES but due to local regulations. In some countries breeders have been asked by the government about 10 years ago to declare which species of humming birds they keep and breed. Some breeders did so, others (for a variety of reasons) did not. As a result only a limited percentage of the species pool available in the hobby has been registered. In some of these countries all the species registered 10 years ago are allowed to be kept as available stock, even when protected in the wild; all other species (i.e. not registered) are strictly forbidden.

Though we may hope that regulations like this will never affect aquarists we still need to consider what may happen if they do come in force. Remember, some countries are discussing positive lists!!

Considering all the above I propose to start doing something about protecting rare or endangered species in our tanks now, before it becomes too late. And who knows, if we successfully manage this first part of the project, we may be in a position, in future, to do something about these species in the wild.

I would like to invite you all to start a conservation and breeding program for national and international endangered species in our tanks. At this stage participants only need to declare limited information, such as: the species they are in possession of, whether they keep the fish for pleasure or they are breeding them too, and any specimens of single species they may have. Later, if more people express interest in dedicating tanks to support the preservation of a particular species we will also need to spread our knowledge on keeping and breeding these fish.

An issue we need to consider is ways to connect people breeding rare species, forms and morphs in order to have a better gene pool.  It could also be the case that this service will enable us to preserve a species in danger of becoming extinct: maybe here in Austria swims a single male of a rare species A, and in the USA a single female of the same species.  Bringing them together would be essential for the preservation of the species. Can we do this? How?

Please do not tell me this cannot work. It works well between private individuals or friends who know each other and have personal contact. There are clubs also promoting their hobby by such means, namely having stock lists for all the species available in their club for people interested in acquiring or breeding these. Zoological gardens are implementing breeding programmes with great success for a lot of species in the same way. Why could we not try to structure a similar programme to service the fish community? Why can’t it work with private persons using the internet as a means of communication?

Of course it will be a lot of work, but internet offers great possibilities. I am not asking for everybody who has rare species to join; all those interested, however, are very welcome. We could start something like a fishbase, with scientists and aquarists from all over the world cooperating to support the project. Hopefully, as the project goes on, more people will join, thus enhancing its chances for success.

For the time being things look good when it comes to freshwater fish. Only a limited number of species are forbidden to keep. The current favourable situation will not last for ever though;  we have ample warnings about that. We need to start doing something now, before things get worse. Getting organised now will enhance our chances to keep endangered species in future too, even when they cannot be collected or exported any more. A number of catfish from Brazil cannot be exported now; for them it is maybe 5 minutes before midnight in the hobby. Yet, we still have a good number of these fish in our tanks. Let´s do something with them; let´s prove that we are not only consumers exploiting natural resources for our personal pleasure.

These are not all the thoughts I have on this topic. It´s only a start. Hopefully a good discussion will come up, resulting in highlighting the pertinent issues and in concrete, remedial actions. I am sure it will be possible to do something positive for the species we love as long as our hearts are in it. And if we can do this well, then we can maybe take a further step and do something more to enable protection of these species in the wild, provided that the wild for some or all of these species still exists as a possibility.

It is up to us to work now to save the fish we have been working with over so many years. If aquarists committed to the hobby and aware of the possible dangers are not going to do this who should do it?

This information in this section is organized and compiled by Anton Lamboj, Marina Parha and George J. Reclos

If you would like to participate in this project, please e-mail us at stating "ACP" in the subject line

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