A common current topic of concern among cichlid lovers is that of conservation. Most people would agree on the accelerated decay of our natural inheritance. Our natural environment is nowadays put under tremendous pressure as a result of humans always expanding activities, supported by what many of us have no problem justifying as valid reasons.
Many aquarists, by nature interested in life diversity, enter in panic every time they learn about habitats of their beloved cichlids that get endangered because of human activity, with nothing or almost nothing they can do about it. One recent example is the approval (after a long environmental fight) the Brazilian government has given to the construction of a huge hydroelectric project in Rio Xingú, which will affect the endemic fauna of that wonderful river and that of Rio Madeira, both key rivers of the Amazon basin. Another example is the extirpation of many of the endemic cichlid species from Lake Victoria by the introduction of the Nile perch (Lates niloticus). Many of the species are gone before we can have a scientific description for them. Species remaining are facing a change in their natural habitat that may lead them to extinction all the same. These kinds of examples multiply every passing year here and there and it would be tiresome (and certainly depressing) to keep listing them here.
Then comes the topic of conservation. What can we do beyond signing support letters (that in most cases have little to no effect) to preserve aquatic diversity? The simple answer is: “save the fish in your aquariums”. This sounds good at first thought but the implications go far beyond our initial considerations. Is it worth saving fish in our aquariums? Opinions vary in this respect.
In the first place comes the issue of the genetic integrity of the specimens kept in an aquarium. It is said by some that it is worthless to keep species in captivity, as their genetic integrity starts to shift away from what they have in their natural habitat as soon as the first generation hits the aquarium environment. This is certainly true, but on the other hand, does that make it worthless to keep a species for the long term in captivity? I don’t think so, as even while I agree that the genetic framework of a species shifts away as soon as they hit an artificial environment, that does not mean it is lost or cannot be recovered. I believe that given a good number of specimens kept in captivity (to avoid inherited genetic defects, like those found in captive populations of the Goodeid Skiffia francesca, who tend to swim sideways, kept in captivity since its reported last collection back in 1967), the genetic integrity can be mostly recovered once the organism returns to the restored habitat.
In this regard I remember as a kid putting veil-tail guppies in large outside pools, after several generations I found out that the carefully selected traits breeders achieved after many generations, that made a veil-tail guppy or fancy swordtail, had reverted to those of wild specimens, given the semi-natural conditions of the big pool. The organism will adapt to the new environment, or perish. What better than nature-engineered morphology? The problem is, if we save an organism in the aquarium, what happens to the rest of the organisms that were part of the intricate environmentally balanced network they were part of? Those organisms lost, the saved organism can hardly be the same, even if returned to the restored habitat. In any case, the organism will either perish in the new conditions or thrive in the new circumstances.
Nevertheless, I strongly believe that even if we manage to lead to the extinction of most of the species, a whole new balanced eco-fauna will evolve from those few organisms remaining. We are not as powerful as we like to think, believing that we can finish with life forms if we feel like it, and it doesn't matter, as we as humans are all that is important. We just can’t and I feel that strongly. We as humans certainly will be gone before that happens. And a whole new set of species will evolve from those surviving our aggression. I even believe that intelligence and love will evolve again as we know them, but in other beings that may study us, like we study dinosaurs. The problem with all this is, we (and our descendants in the short term) will be deprived of the wonderful assemblage of life, which supplies us so incredibly profusely with resources, beauty, peace, and knowledge.
So, do I think it is worth keeping captive populations of endangered organisms? I repeat I believe it is, and probably it is our only way to give them a chance as aquarists, even though many of those organisms will probably not be able to thrive in the new conditions they will encounter when we take them back to their restored habitats or those we create for them
Keeping captive individuals with the aim of conservation is however not as easy as we can think. One person can lead a species to breed in their captive conditions for one or two generations with little problem, but making them breed for many consecutive generations with little loss of their natural traits is a completely different matter. I highly respect people like James Langhammer, who has done it for Skiffia francesae and Hubbsina turneri, or my favorite, Rosario LaCorte, who when I visited him back in 2001 showed me those incredible tetras and rainbow fish colonies he had been keeping consecutively for 35 years! You need to be a great aquarist to achieve that!
A conservation-minded aquarist wanting to save a species will face several problems, first of all, lack of encouragement. It requires a lot of discipline to keep a species for a long time, devoting the (most of the time) very restricted resources an aquarist counts with, to a single species.
The club's "breeding award programs" that reward the number of species reproduced do little help to conservation, they act in the counter sense to it, I believe. Breeding award programs should reward the long-term maintenance of a species instead of the number of species reproduced. In my view, there is no value but that of ego pumping in breeding many different species, and then getting rid of them.
The commercial value of a preserved but readily available species goes down to nothing, as most times the conservation-minded aquarist is eager to give away some stock to other interested parties. No money in a fish, many breeders won’t even consider allotting space to them for a generation. So, how to achieve genetic integrity if nobody else wants to keep a population of a species to later share stock with?
Many conservation efforts I have seen have been wasted away in boredom and lack of meaning, and finally thrown out the board. It is easy to say “yeah preserve one species”, but much harder to actually do it yourself. So, in my belief conservation efforts must consider these facts. Clubs must support the long-term conservation of a species, if they really care for conservation, beyond being politically correct. Populations should be monitored and people working with one species should always keep in contact with other people working with them, to share information, stock, and overall, support. As I mentioned, those who benefit will just be ourselves!
Have all of you a year full of health, excitement, and love! Enjoy the wonderful nature we still have!
p.d. This editorial was written in December 2010, but for technical reasons, it is published in January. So I publish it as a late December editorial, as a new topic will be published in the coming days
© Copyright 2011 Juan Miguel Artigas Azas, all rights reserved
Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. (Jan 06, 2011). "Some hard thoughts on conservation". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Dec 10, 2023, from: https://cichlidae.com/section.php?id=206.