Juan Miguel Artigas Azas,
Cichlid Room Companion
Wonderful cichlids

Cichlid conservation – Efforts to protect biodiversity

By , 2022. image
Last updated on 06-Dec-2022

Classification: Ecology and conservation.

" Not all is uncontrolled population growth and greed with humans, there are also many people who genuinely and passionately care for the environment and the species, and efforts are organized to try to miti "

After reading the previous article you may be feeling depressed about the grim situation species in general and cichlids in particular face by the accelerated loss of habitats and damage caused by humans. It is clear that it is not the world that is losing with this destruction, but we humans are the most affected. We are losing the beauty of natural habitats, the knowledge we acquire from them, and the knowledge we acquire to make our lives better, and all this for future generations that don’t have any say in it. When we humans will disappear from the earth, nature will bounce back from the remaining species through evolution and the richness of life forms and environment that we experienced once will be present again, but we won’t be there to enjoy them and learn from them. There will be no second chance.

Conservation organizations

Of course not all is uncontrolled population growth and greed with humans, there are also many people who genuinely and passionately care for the environment and the species, and efforts are organized to try to mitigate the damage caused. The following organizations, groups, and initiatives work with this mission.

World Wildlife Fund

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is an international non-governmental organization founded in 1961 that works in wilderness preservation and reducing human impact on the environment. WWF is the world's largest conservation organization, with over five million supporters worldwide, working in more than 100 countries and supporting around 3,000 conservation and environmental projects. The WWF has invested over $1 billion in more than 12,000 conservation initiatives since 1995. WWF is a foundation with 55% of its funding from individuals and bequests, 19% from government sources (such as the World Bank, DFID, and USAID), and 8% from corporations in 2014 (Wikipedia).

WWF produces the biannual “The Living Planet Report” published since 1998; it is based on a The Living Planet Index and ecological footprint calculation. In addition, WWF has launched several notable worldwide campaigns, including Earth Hour and Debt-for-Nature Swap, and its current work is organized around these six areas: food, climate, freshwater, wildlife, forests, and oceans.


The International Union for the Conservation of Nature with headquarters in Gland, Switzerland, as Wikipedia puts it, is “an international organization working in the field of nature conservation and sustainable use of natural resources. It is involved in data gathering and analysis, research, field projects, advocacy, and education. IUCN's mission is to influence, encourage and assist societies throughout the world to conserve nature and to ensure that any use of natural resources is equitable and ecologically sustainable".

The IUCN was founded in 1948 and promoted by UNESCO. Among its members are states, government agencies, NGOs, indigenous organizations, and over 17,000 experts around the world. During its life, it has raised praise for its work but also has become subject to criticism, from being accused of promoting the protection of nature over indigenous people’s communities, to being over-friendly with the industry.

The IUCN does not carry direct conservation actions, but engineers and promotes initiatives that provide education, information, proposed legislation, and other means of conservation support. The IUCN is best known for compiling and publishing the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which assesses the conservation status of species worldwide. The list is an important reference for the status of the species it covers, which increases every day. Nowadays, over 1,100 species of cichlids are evaluated by the IUCN in the Red List, and those evaluations are updated every few years, each time providing more information about them.

Male in Lake Apoyo Amphilophus chancho, a cichlid species from Centro American listed as critically endangered by the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. Photo by Ad Konings. determiner Ad Konings


The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals. It aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten the survival of the species in the wild, and it accords varying degrees of protection from commerce to more than 38,000 species of animals and plants (Wikipedia).

CITES establishes rules and lists species whose international trade is forbidden and should be enforced at borders by country officials. CITES list species in appendices that either bans their international commerce or allows it through a licensing system for those species whose international commerce is allowed. About 5,000 species of animals and 29,000 species of plants are listed in CITES appendices.

Unfortunately, no cichlid species is listed in any of the CITES appendices, which would be a great help to protect species from Lake Malawi and Tanganyika whose populations are almost depleted by collection for the aquarium hobby.

Cichlid Conservation

In direct relation to cichlid species conservation we also have several initiatives started by individuals, associations, institutions, and governments, such as the following:

Paul V. Loiselle Conservation Fund

The American Cichlid Association has established a fund in which yearly interest is used to award financial support to activities deemed worthy of assistance; such as research that facilitates the design and/or implementation of effective conservation programs for species at risk, programs intended to preserve the integrity of cichlid habitats, programs intended to restore cichlid species to the historic habitat from which they have been extirpated at a date when the habitat of origin is determined suitable for their survival, programs that seek to build the capacity of institutions within the country of origin to effect the conservation of cichlid species at risk; and programs that assist in the design and/or implementation of long-term management programs outside the country of origin for captive populations of cichlid species at risk. The award is granted annually to a selected applicant.

Stuart M. Grant Cichlid Conservation Fund

Ad Konings and Jay Stauffer have established this fund to support efforts of conservation of Lake Malawi cichlids, as he explains it: “For years it was thought that the huge biodiversity in Africa’s Rift lakes was in good shape and unlikely to be affected by the burgeoning human population; the simple reason being that no industry had established on the lakes’ shores. However, the paucity of jobs and income around Lake Malawi more or less forced the riparian communities to increase their fishing efforts. This massive increase naturally brought an enormous reduction in fish stocks. Since the early 1970s beach seines have systematically been employed by almost every village along the shores of Lake Malawi and by 1985 the number of nets had increased 50-fold and the fishing efforts even more, but the amount of landed fish had decreased.

In the early 1990s fish stocks in the southeastern arm of the lake and those of Lake Malombe had collapsed. There is still no regulation in place even though beach seines and small-meshed gill nets are forbidden. When I (Ad Konings) visited the lake in the late 1980s beach seines were very prevalent and the catches, even strongly reduced from what they were 10 years earlier, were substantial. Nowadays beach seines are rare in the South East Arm of Lake Malawi, not because the authorities finally caught up with applying the law, but simply because there are no fish left.“

Everybody can donate to the Stuart M. Grant Cichlid Conservation Fund, where the funds themselves are quickly and directly used in field conservation of Lake Malawi cichlids and recently also for Lake Tanganyika cichlids. One particular effort has been to manufacture and install hundreds of Anti-Netting Devices (ANDs) that rip nets used illegally in protected areas, but the fight has been an uphill battle and a lot more effort is necessary to protect those valuable areas.

Male at Taiwanee Reef Chindongo saulosi, one of the species endangered in Lake Malawi by over-collection for the aquarium hobby, that is protected by the Stuart M. Grant Cichlid Conservation Fund. Photo by Ad Konings. determiner Ad Konings


Claudia Dickinson has established a conservation program to guide aquarists into which species of fish need to be the focus of conservation efforts. The list is selected by a group of specialists. As Claudia puts it: “The purpose of the CARES Preservation Program is to create a base stock of conservation priority species through encouraging hobbyists worldwide to devote tank space to one or more species at risk and distribute offspring to fellow qualified hobbyists, while forming an information network where possible between aquarists, scientists, and conservationists.”

CARES has four major goals: 1) to bring awareness to the critical situation of fish in nature while educating the public and stressing the importance of our roles as responsible aquarists; 2) to recognize, encourage, and offer support to hobbyists who maintain species at risk; 3) to share fish as well as data and experiences through notes and manuscripts so that others may learn to maintain those identical and similar species, and 4) to preserve species at risk for future generations.

Male in the aquarium Astatotilapia desfontainii, one of the species promoted as of conservation importance by CARES. Photo by Lee Ann Steeves. (2008-08-10). determiner Greg Steeves

Fighting extinction

Reintroduction efforts

The University of San Nicolás de Hidalgo in Morelia, Mexico, has taken the initiative to reintroduce to its natural habitat the recently extinct in the wild goodeid species Zoogoneticus tequila. This little species had just been discovered a few decades ago and were endemic to the headwaters of the Teuchitlan River in the Ameca drainage in central-west Mexico. The reasons for the species’ disappearance are poorly understood, but it is believed that pollution with agrochemicals could have played an important part. Taking this into consideration, for years a team of scientists sampled the whole river for chemical analyses, and negotiated with local authorities and the public on how to improve its water quality. A broad awareness campaign was launched in the community through talks, posters, and direct contact with local people. In the laboratory, the team researched the species' preferred food for fry and adults, its tolerance to different water parameters, and its compatibility with exotic species. After years of research and captive breeding of this species, which also resulted in several scientific papers, they started the actual reintroduction to the natural habitat. I was invited to witness the status of the population and take underwater pictures of the species a couple of years later. It turned out that the species remained rare and reclusive even after this time. What became very clear to me is that wiping out a species from a natural environment is very easy, but trying to reintroduce it after it had been extirpated can be a very difficult and resource-consuming endeavor.

Bringing down dams

All dams negatively affect the aquatic environments of rivers that they are located on, but those effects are often negated by the stated purpose of the dam, whether it is hydroelectric power, flood control, or other functions. When the negative environmental effects outweigh the benefits, a dam may be considered for removal. This happened on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park in Washington when an extraordinarily rich salmon habitat was being disrupted by an outdated hydroelectric plant. Before dams were built on the Elwha River, 400,000 salmon returned each year to spawn, but that number dropped to fewer than 3,000 after dams were put up. Once the hydroelectric power generating capacities of the dams had outlived their useful lives, the importance of this salmon habitat necessitated the removal of the dams on the Elwha River (Wikipedia).

Freshly collected adult Teleocichla preta, one of the species threatened by the Belo Monte dam in the lower Rio Xingu in Brazil. Photo by Oldřich Říčan. determiner Florent de Gasperis

Fighting pollution

The type locality of Herichthys carpintis is Laguna del Carpintero (Carpenter’s Lagoon) found in downtown Tampico at the mouth of the Panuco River drainage in northeastern Mexico. Due to the increasing pollution of the lagoon caused by the discharge of residential and industrial sewage and landfill with garbage, the major fauna was lost at one point. At the beginning of the 1990s, the lagoon’s original ecological conditions were restored thanks to social pressure, and nowadays a rich and complex flora and fauna inhabit the lagoon and its surroundings, including a large population (about a hundred individuals) of Mexican crocodiles (Crocodylus moreletii), some reaching five meters in length! They remain separated from the public by a low fence that has been proven effective. Unfortunately, a success like this is not to be taken for granted. At the beginning of 1998 increased pollution due to slacking of the city’s control of the lagoon caused problems with some mangroves dying, which again triggered a citizen protest and pressure for better management of the lagoon. Having experienced the lagoon in a restored condition, the citizenship is less likely to let it go to waste again.

Fighting overexploitation of aquatic resources

Male at Poza de la Becerra A male of Herichthys minckleyi possibly of the detritivorous morph at Poza de la Becerra, Cuatro Ciénegas, Rio Grande drainage; Coahuila [Mexico]. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas. (2005-11-21). determiner Juan Miguel Artigas Azas

In the small desert valley of Cuatro Ciénegas in northern Mexico, home of the endemic polymorphic species Herichthys minckleyi —the Cuatro Cienegas cichlid—a legal battle about the water rights between ecologists and government, who were defending big economic interests, took place in recent years. The precious desert valley, which is home to sixteen fish species —eight of them endemic—and a very large, and in some cases unique, flora and fauna, had been suffering from water extraction from the adjacent valley of El Hundido, where large extensions are used to grow alfalfa as cattle fodder by a very large company. It had to be demonstrated that the water table reduction was caused by their extraction, and in the end, the water was protected. It was a big battle which for now was won by the ecologists, but one should never rest on one's laurels, since the efforts to get the water don’t and won’t cease.

The valley has unfortunately also been affected by the introduction of the African cichlid species Hemichromis guttatus, quite likely dumped by an aquarist who did not want his fish anymore. The fish has proliferated in several of the valley’s springs and has resisted removal efforts by several institutions and private interests. While H. guttatus may not directly endanger H. minckleyi, the precious desert valley hosts sixteen species of fish, eight endemic. Some of these species as well as the rich invertebrate fauna are threatened by the introduction.

Aquarium keeping of endangered species

Aquarium keeping has saved some species from becoming extinct. The goodeid Skiffia francesae, the Cyprinodontid Cyprinodon alvarezi, and several other species fall in this category. The last documented collection of S. francesae at its type locality, the headwaters of Teuchitlán River in the Ameca drainage in western Mexico, took place in February of 1970 by Robert Rush Miller of the University of Michigan (field number RRM70-11). The specimens collected served as types of the species but were also used to start a captive colony at the Belle Island Aquarium in Detroit, by the then curator James Langhammer. The species was distributed to several aquarists. After several decades, a problem was noticed in many captive populations, as many individuals would not be able to swim upright, but moved tilted at an angle. It could have been a genetic defect that originated in one captive breeding group that became spread through the exchange in many captive populations. Fortunately for the species, a second disjoint population was found in the early 2000s, far from the type locality. After its habitat dried up, this second population is now extinct in the wild. This new population is now maintained in captive colonies.

Several lessons can be learned from this experience. First, a small breeding colony is not enough, since a genetic bottleneck is created where genetic defects will be magnified by inbreeding and established across many populations after exchange. A large number of individuals is necessary to reduce this problem and a constant exchange with other captive populations is needed. Several captive populations have to be maintained. Also, even if the population is small, fish with defects have to be culled to prevent contamination of the whole population.

This is problematic since many aquarists are not willing to devote the resources necessary to maintain one species for the long term; many prefer to try something new after they get bored with one species. It is also true (in my experience) that maintaining one species becomes more difficult as time passes since a small maintenance error or problem with the diet magnifies with time and generations.

The so-called breeding award programs (BAP) that many aquarium clubs maintain don’t help at all in conservation, since many aquarists swap species as soon as they can breed them, to get more points. Long-term keeping efforts are undermined by such programs which were not designed with conservation in mind.

An aquarist who wishes to devote her or his time to the conservation of one species must know beforehand that constant dedication is required. Enough quarters must be provided and ideally, populations should be maintained in more than one aquarium, the more specimens the better. Distribution of surplus fry is necessary to prevent the unintended collapse of one population dooms the species in question. Other aquarists must be encouraged to participate on a long-term basis. Aquarium clubs may establish programs to award long-term keeping of one species.

In the aquarium Paretroplus menarambo, a critically endangered cichlid species from Madagascar kept by some aquarists for conservation purposes. Photo by Juan Miguel Artigas Azas. determiner Juan Miguel Artigas Azas

All this may not be enough to save a species. When a species is lost in nature, it generally drifts from the original population, as natural selective forces are no longer present. Also, not just a species is lost but the whole ecosystem in which it lived, and this ecosystem is not possible to replicate under aquarium conditions, so the future of the species is dim, no matter what. But at least, a possibility exists that one day the species, like Zoogoneticus tequila, could be reintroduced to a restored habitat.

Many thanks to Ad Konings for critically reading this article and his valuable comments.


Artigas Azas, Juan Miguel. (Dec 06, 2022). "Cichlid conservation – Efforts to protect biodiversity". Cichlid Room Companion. Retrieved on Apr 17, 2024, from: