Interview by Rick Borstein
GCCA’S CICHLID CHATTER — MARCH 1999
Tell us about yourself... how did you get started with Cichlids?
When I was born in 1956, I didn’t have gills, yet— unfortunately as, at an age of 2, I al- most drowned in the goldfish pond of my grandma. It was not until I was twelve that I got my first aquarium. Not long after that I got more, stocked with the first Tanganyikan cichlids that were available in the Netherlands. I made all the mistakes that novice aquarists make today, but experience was built up. During my biology study, I helped out on Saturdays at Verduijn Cichlids, at that time, Europe’s best assorted cichlid shop. My first trip to Africa was to Malawi in 1980 and from then on I was hooked on “cichlids in the wild”.
In the last ten years, I have visited Lake Malawi and Tanganyika more than once a year and I am slowly developing “the cichlid picture” in my mind. Coupled with yearly trips to Mexico, I’m getting an idea how cichlids do in the natural environment. After 42 tanks in Germany, my wife allows me only two in El Paso; the first is almost 500 gallons...
You’ve been diving and observing cichlids in Africa for many years. Can you share with our members an interesting story of finding new cichlids?
For many years, I have been publishing books and articles on Malawi cichlids in German and in Germany. Some other authors in Germany don’t like that and try to outdo me. One of them, let’s call him Andreas, even tried to copy every single step I took in getting photos of Malawi cichlids. When I went for the first time to the Tanzanian part of the lake, that same person managed to go a few weeks earlier and got a boat from the same fish collector as I did. I was with Martin Geerts and Laif DeMason, who owned the boats all of us were using, was with us as well. At Manda, halfway through our trip, we chanced to meet Andreas and since our visit was a surprise for him, he couldn’t conceal a new fish he collected in the area we were supposed to go to next. In a little baby swimming pool, he had little a blue-black barred mbuna which resembled Pseudotropheus saulosi males. He refused to tell us where he found them even though the diver, who caught the fish, was on Laif’s payroll. Laif’s partner in Tanzania, Erling, agreed with Andreas, who was leaving the country in a few days, that he would take these new fish home! Laif was very angry because Andreas was using his boats and his divers and now that a new and exciting new mbuna was found, he wasn’t even able to get it. Worse, someone else was going to breed the fish and make money on the European market. Andreas and Erling left with the lake steamer to Itungi port, where Laif’s fish house was. Since Andreas wanted to visit a crater lake north of Itungi port, the two of them left for a couple of days. In the meantime, Laif took the next lake steamer —in those days there were two services a week— and steamed up north, to Itungi. In the fishhouse, he found the little mbuna and added a few big predators to the tank after he made sure that there were no females among them. Andreas, was upset —we later heard— but still took the remaining fish with him in a box to Germany. He desperately wanted someone to name this fish after him and also had preserved material. Since his voyage would take him through Malawi (shorter than flying out of Tanzania), he was faced with a very cold check-in agent at Lilongwe airport. Nobody is allowed to take live fish out of Malawi, no exceptions! Whatever he did, there was no way he could take the fish with him. Therefore he asked the driver and manager of Laif’s operation in Tanzania, Freddy, if he would take the fish back and ship them the next week with the proper documentation. Freddy agreed. Unfortunately on his way back to Tanzania, Freddy’s had car trouble and he had to stay overnight in Malawi, in the highlands (cold nights). You guessed it— the fish were dead the next morning. So, Andreas only had preserved specimens left. In the meantime, Laif, Martin, and I continued our trip and also found the fish, collected it and preserved some specimens. I thought it a good idea to quickly name this species after Laif — he had done so much for me and other hobbyists by making available Tanzanian cichlids— before someone else could publish a description naming the fish in honor of Andreas. So I did and that is the story of Pseudotropheus demasoni.
Are there any current or forthcoming environmental issues that concern you as an observer and writer about African cichlids? What are they and what is the risk?
The environmental issue in Lake Malawi is the overfishing done by the local population. There is exponential [population] growth in Malawi and food is scarce. More and more Africans revert to fishing on the lake, just for their own families. There is nothing we can or should do about it. The situation is better in the Mozambique and Tanzanian part of the lake. Fishing on Lake Tanganyika is very extensive in the southern section, which belongs to Zambia, and many species have been lost from that area. Other parts of the lake are in relatively good shape. Fortunately, the infrastructure of the surrounding countries is very poor so that big industry is not likely going to settle on the shores of these lakes and pollute the water.
You often speak of interesting fish behaviors that you observe while diving. What can we do as aquarists to promote natural behavior in our tanks? What cichlids might respond best to changes? What fish will be a continuing problem in regards to eliciting natural behaviors?
The best way to promote natural behavior is to provide the fish with a natural environment. Therefore, I write books. I tell you how the fish lives and what it needs and the aquarist has to use his or her imagination in trying to copy that. I under- stand that a complete natural environment cannot be created in your living room, but you can go a long way. In principle, the fishes that can be accommodated with relatively little space do best in an aquarium. Fishes that are large and territorially aggressive, such as Petrochromis species, are not good aquarium fishes— they want to show their natural behavior!
You’ve traveled extensively and met cichlid hobbyists in clubs around the world. What differences have you noticed between hobbyists and clubs in the US and around the world? Similarities? Recommendations for our members and club?
Granted that an aquarium is always unnatural, there are many possibilities to create a very natural looking environment for your fishes. And my idea of a modern aquarium is a “slice from the wild”, a most naturally looking habitat for fishes. Unfortunately, a great number of US hobbyists, even though they love their fish, do not know or do not want to spend the effort and money to create such an environ- ment. We must not forget that we don’t really know whether or not a fish is dis- tressed because the shelter given to him consists of a gray plastic pipe instead of a rocky cave. The issue here is that such a fish is given a shelter or is given the amount of room and compatible room mates. And in this area, regrettably, many aquarists fall short. If a hobbyist is interested in e.g. Tanganyika cichlids, he or she is not going to try to keep all 200 different species. The big boom for cichlids happened about ten years ago when a lot of people could make money with breeding some, at that time, rare species, but now these species are not rare any longer and we are back to those hobbyists that enjoy keeping a good-looking aquarium. And, I might add, those numbers are growing. There is nothing more pleasing than a beautifully decorated aquarium with healthy fishes in it. Even for non-aquarists such a setup is a joy to watch! A friend of mine in Sweden deals in those very natural looking rocky backgrounds and he says that the sale of those very expensive —but also very natural— backgrounds in Scandinavia is skyrocketing. The reason seems simple— people want to have a “slice of the wild” and now, it seems, they can get it! As I see it, the cichlid enthusiast of the next century has a single, large tank of more than 100 gallons with a decoration which equals that of the natural environment of the fishes he/she is keeping. The fish in this tank of the future are compatible with the artificial environment and with the other tank mates. The peripheral systems, such as pumps, filtration, heating, are state of the art and keep the quality of the water at its best. Everything is automated so that the aquarists and his/her family can fully enjoy the tank without the weekly water changing and cleaning chores.
You’re an author, speaker and publisher and acknowledged cichlid expert in our hobby What’s next for Ad Konings? What is your next challenge?
I don’t see writing and speaking about the cichlids as a challenge. I’m a hobbyist like anyone who reads this and I love to observe and to think cichlids. So my next challenge is— more cichlids! ■
Editor’s Note: I recommend that you visit http://www.cichlidpress.com which is the web site for Ad’s publishing company. On the site, you can learn more about collect- ing cichlids in Africa and even get a look at the accommodations available for your own cichlid safari!