Meeting an old friend at the zoo.
by Frank Panis
1. The good days
Everyone who gets involved with African cichlids knows that they are highly addictive. Most of us are also familiar with the urge to get more cichlid species and at the same time we want to keep expanding our aquarium collection. I must admit that in my case things are not different. Through the years I bought and built a large amount of tanks ranging from 120L until 3000L and I kept many Malawi cichlids in them. Some of these fish were nice, but nothing more than that. Some cichlids on the other hand were really spectacular and will stay in my memory for a very long time, and not only in a positive way! One of them was Fossorochromis rostratus. I bought my first (wildcaught) ones in 2000 when I got my new 1000L tank, but lost almost all of them after a serious disease outbreak. Only one female remained, but after a while I was lucky to find a large group of captive bred males. I bought all of them and to my relief these guys did fine. They quickly assumed the leadership in this 1000L tank, and after a fight for the top position a spawning followed in August 2001. I took the female out of the main tank and let her take care of her 150+ fry in a separate 140L tank, what still remains one of my most beautiful aquatic moments up till now! Then I built a 3000L tank in my cellar, as I thought that these large cichlids would feel better in there than in the 1000L tank. The territorial fights only got started for real and 4 subdominant males were always swimming side by side near the surface because they were continuously chased by the others. I was not happy with this sad situation and made a wrong decision: I sold these 4 poor guys, so 3 males and a female remained in the 3000L tank. Due to ongoing fights the third male got a dislocated jaw, and after a while I decided to donate this poor fellow and the second male to a friend. There the male with the dislocated jaw died very soon, what was an indication that there were more problems with this fish than I first thought. In my tank the peace returned a bit, but not completely though. Every time when the female came out of her hiding place she was furiously chased by the male. In the end she only came out when it was feeding time and she deteriorated very rapidly. I had to carry out an euthanasia on her as I even saw her bleeding in the water. Now the male was the only remaining Fossorochromis in the tank. I didn't want anymore victims, so I resigned with the fact that this single male would grow old in that 3000L tank.
2. Saying goodbye
All of a sudden the Fossorochromis really went one step too far! One evening I went downstairs to feed the fish in the 3000L tank and I saw 3 of my magnificent blotched F1 Placidochromis phenochilus "Tanzania" lying upside down gasping their last breath. This brutal killing really was the limit for me, so I finally decided that this cichlid had to leave! The other remaining male at my friends place was doing relatively well, but we all felt that he would be happier in a larger tank.
At an auction of the ABCV we happened to meet Wilfried Van der Elst who works in the aquarium of the Antwerp Zoo. In Belgium he's a well known cichlid "connoisseur" and enthusiast. We talked for a while and Wilfried was really interested in the Fossorochromis. The idea that we could donate both Fossorochromis to the Antwerp Zoo really started to appeal us! He told us that he needed to talk it through with the head of the aquarium department, and soon after getting his approval we arranged a date when he would come by to pick up both fish. The transport buckets that Wilfried brought along were pretty large, but nevertheless they proved to be very tight for these 32cm giants. All in all the transport went without problems, and shortly after we heard that the cichlids were happily swimming in the Malawi show tank of the Antwerp Zoo. This was gratifying news and made me feel better about my decision. Wilfried and I kept contact on a regular basis so heard that one of them lost his breeding colours in favour of the more dominant male. Still I had not seen the fish in their new home...
3. Seeing my old friends again
Half a year later around Easter we finally decided to take a trip to the Zoo with the family and pay a visit to our old friends. We took the train as the Antwerp central station is just a few steps away from the entrance of the Zoo and also because the kids would enjoy a train ride very much. The weather was very good regarding the time of the year, so we were set to have a great day. Once there both Matthias and Catho were very pleased. I won't go into detail about the "usual" elephants, giraffes, zebras, buffalos, monkeys, lions, tigers, pelicans, hippos, owls, flamingos and many other interesting species that we saw that day, but although they were very enjoyable, they're not the essence of this article. Furthermore my mind was already with the cichlids immediately after entering the Zoo. Please don't take me wrong on this one though! I was able to keep myself under control and walked steadily through the park with Hilde and the kids and didn't rush to get to the aquariums as soon as possible without looking back!
On with the cichlids now... Finally my patience was rewarded! After walking through the penguin house we entered the aquarium hall. As soon as I was able to catch a glimpse of the tank where Malawi cichlids resided, I immediately noticed the 2 Fossorochromis rostratus in there. There was no doubt that the big fellows were doing well! The dominant male had a nice territory in the left part of the tank that was decorated with huge chunks of slate, and the other one had a hiding place behind such a rock in the upper right part of the tank. I fell silent for a moment as looking at these Fossorochromis brought back good and bad memories at the same time. I observed them and saw that a large Dimidiochromis compressiceps claimed a large territory in the middle of the tank. An obvious overcrowding also contributed to the fact that aggression was reduced to a minimum. This way both Fossorochromis were kept apart most of the time and no zealous chasing and injuries could appear. I started taking some photo's and all of a sudden Wilfried stood next to me. He welcomed me and it's obvious that we talked about the fish. Wilfried told me that they were a bit thin when they arrived, but now they gained weight again. I had to admit that they both were in prime shape. We also talked about Tanganyika cichlids, as these wonderful fish are his N°1 passion and I also keep them. We kept on chatting about keeping cichlids in general, but we were stopped as Hilde came back in. She wanted to continue to walk all round the zoo. Indeed the kids were getting impatient and at their age (3 and 5) they don't really understood why I spent so much time in front of that tank. Time to say goodbye to Wilfried and my friends then! I will visit you again later this year or in 2005!
Here some more pictures of the cichlids in the Antwerp Zoo Malawi tank. All the popular species are here and the visitor will get a good impression of them, although the overcrowding might not appeal everyone.
After finishing the walk we stopped at the playground where the kids were "unleashed" to play for an hour. After enjoying to see them play, talking a bit and having a coffee and ice cream we took the train to travel back home! We were all tired form walking all day, but we all had a good time! One thing is certain: we will return soon!
4. Some afterthoughts
I did some thinking on the whole story. First on the size and temperament of these cichlids. In my opinion these animals need an extremely large tank to start with. Ad Konings reports in his books that in the lake Fossorochromis rostratus builds nests with a diameter of 2.5 meter. Think about the fact that the males fiercely defend this nest and then it's not very difficult to conclude that they need a circular territory of about 5 meters or more. Such a surface area can never be attained in our tanks at home and not even in most of the public aquariums. In the end every other fish in the tank of a Fossorochromis will be in his territory all of the time so it will be regarded as an opponent that needs to be chased. This is experienced in the past by people at the club who told repeatedly about casualties in tanks with adult Fossorochromis males. Also me and Francesco wanted to give this fish more room and avoid overcrowding, but this only resulted in casualties as the Fossorochromis were able to develop their boisterous character.
So what's the solution to keep them? Overcrowding seems to be the way to go with Fossorochromis. Marco Isidori "crammed" them into a 300L tank, and he bred them with success. In the zoo they're doing fine in a large tank, but only with serious overcrowding and worthy opponents. This is clearly not the way I prefer to keep cichlids, so I have to conclude that these fish are no longer an option for me. I'm extremely glad though that these beautiful fish found a new home in the zoo, and I learned my lesson in the meantime: I will no longer keep animals that need a larger territory than I'm able to provide them. There are many other very nice and less aggressive species from Lake Tanganyika or South-America that will give me the same or even more satisfaction, and this is and will be the direction that my fishkeeping hobby is evolving