(This article was originally published in Cichlid News Magazine, Jul-98 pp. 6-14, It is reproduced here with the permission of author Jean Claude Nourissat and Aquatic promotions).
Lamena sp. "blue lips" from the Kalamilotra river, in Jean Claude's impressive 12,000 liters Madagascar cichlid aquarium in Toulon, France. Photo by Jean Claude Nourissat.
It was the beginning of October, 1997, and once again the plane deposited us at Ivato, the airport serving Tananarive, or "Tana" as the capital city of Madagascar is known. My faithful friend Patrick de Rham was with me as usual, as well as Corinne Toumi, who was to take back our preliminary collections at the end of the first week of our trip. Customs gets better every year, and our copious baggage received very little attention. As soon as we cleared the airport we made our way to the Fisheries Service to obtain export permits. The director was not there, so Losiane, our driver's wife, volunteered to take care of this business for us. We spent the rest of the day preparing for our grand departure, scheduled for 5 a.m. the next day. We were planning to head north.
Our plan was to spend three days on the banks of the Kalamilotra River, just past Maevatanana, then 23 days at Lake Kinkony. Corinne would then pick up the plane at Majunga and return to Nice via Paris. Thus relieved of any fish caught in this first region, I next intended to head up as far as Anbanja and return the same way, pausing at various rivers on the way, then make a detour towards Mandritsara before returning to Tana.
Paretroplus kieneri from the Kalamilotra river. Photo by Jean Claude Nourissat.
The road to Majunga was under repair but was in good shape as far as Maevatanana. But on the next leg it took us 2.5 hrs to cover the last 40 kilometers (25 miles)! We arrived in the middle of the night, generally exhausted, and woke up the river dwellers, old friends of ours, in order to organize the next day's fishing.
We had arranged to fish first of all in Lake Amparinandrina. The previous year we had (not without difficulty) caught an undescribed Paretroplus species there, and this year we wanted to catch more. I had brought 300 meters (300 yards) of 0.8" mesh net, which I hoped to use, with the aid of the local fishermen, to achieve this aim. Unfortunately most of the river fishermen were away that day, and we spent much of it waiting for them to return. We finally caught up with them at the end of the afternoon, but our first attempts at fishing yielded nothing but tilapias. We continued fishing until nightfall, returning to town through pitch black darkness along a stony track full of potholes.
The next day was Sunday a "fady" day (fishing prohibited) on the lake, so after arranging to meet the fishermen again on Monday, we spent the day fishing the Kalamilotra River. It was here that, the previous year, I had discovered a new lamena with blue lips. We were able to catch several large specimens with little difficulty, as well as several nicely colored Paretroplus kieneri. Snorkeling along the riverbank, Corinne spotted a pair of P. kieneri guarding their young and watched them with immense pleasure through her mask. A little later we discovered a pair of large lamena guarding their fry, and I was able to admire them at my leisure. Both male and female were a lovely luminous yellow-orange. They are quite different from those at Mandritsara and much larger, 25 cm (10 inches) at least; they are also less colorful, when sexually inactive they are browner than the other form. The vertical bars are also different, and their large, fleshy, blue lips and the dark spot at the base of the pectoral fin render them immediately recognizable.
Paretroplus dami from the Sambirano river near Anbanja, a real giant! Photo by Jean Claude Nourissat.
Early on Monday morning we returned to the lake, intending to spend the entire day fishing. But to our surprise, the fishermen were gone, vanished into thin air. No idea why. They had left behind one woman, but she offered no explanation for their disappearance. The same thing had happened the previous year; perhaps we had unknowingly violated some obscure taboo. A real setback as regards the new species of Paretroplus.
We didn't bother to wait, but made our way back, and then took the road to Lake Kinkony, on the far side of the large river called the Betsiboka. We had to take the ferry across the wide estuary and, as there are only two crossings per day, we didn't want to miss it. The roads were dreadful in places, better elsewhere, and it was almost 11 p.m. before we reached the lake. Everyone was asleep and our arrival at this late hour frightened the life out of the local people, who were too scared to come out of their cabins. We located the fishermen we already knew; next day they would have no trouble in catching a reasonably large number of Paretroplus petiti of all sizes. We would put these in plastic tubs under the shade of the trees. Our main objective here, however, was not P. petiti, but another undescribed Paretroplus. While on holiday with his family not long before, our invaluable driver (and friend), Jean, had seen a captured specimen with a large red spot on each flank.
Native fishermen on the Andranomalaza river. Photo by Jean Claude Nourissat.
For three whole days our fishermen tried to catch this species, but with no success! They caught a number of P. kieneri, which have become very rare, but nothing else. We decided to go back the next day so Corinne could catch the plane at Majunga. We had gathered a good number of fish for her to take back.
On the way we stopped in the village of Antongomena where we bought provisions. As luck would have it, Jean got chatting with the villagers and showed them his fish photos. Much excitement and heated discussion followed. The villagers knew of at least two Paretroplus which resembled those in our photos (but were different). One was green with red dots .....
Following their directions, we proceeded immediately to some little lakes not shown on our maps, where we questioned the local fishermen. They confirmed what the villagers had told us. A quick change of plan resulted: we could not leave the area without verifying this information. I would accompany Corinne to the plane the next day via the foot passenger ferry and then return the same evening.
Lamena nourissati, P. kieneri, P. petiti, and Toumi . . . all (except Corinne!) in boxes with individual plastic bags for the largest specimens. In total more than 45 kgs (100 lbs) of excess baggage, all from our little party, took to the sky heading for Tana. Returning as quickly as possible to the other side of the river, I caught up with Patrick, Jean, and Jean's adopted son, Fely, who was also assisting us on this trip. We quickly headed for the village ? no time to spare to eat at the excellent restaurant run by Madame Chabaud, something Patrick had been looking forward to for ages.
The very next day the fishermen caught (not without difficulty) several of the green fishes with the red spots, which in my opinion are a geographical variant of P. petiti. The base color was quite different from that of the Lake Kinkony population, and some specimens had red spots as far forward as their opercula. They were truly very beautiful. We collected five or six individuals that morning, then in the afternoon one of the fishermen took us to another lake a few miles away (also missing from the map).
The recently described "red" Damba, Paretroplus maromandia from the Andranomalaza river. Photo by Patrick de Rham.
Here his son Georges, who spoke perfect French, told us that this was the home of another very rare Paretroplus, which he assured us we could collect. Our two 140 m (450 ft) nets were employed night and day by two teams, but we found no trace of the new Paretroplus. But we did catch lots of green P. petiti. There were numerous color forms in this lake: green with red spots, grey with red spots, green and grey without red spots, and every other combination possible. Of the hundreds caught, only a dozen of the most and least strikingly colored adults (representing males and females) were kept. This population was a smaller size than that in Lake Kinkony, where one frequently encounters specimens measuring 30 cm (12") and weighing 0.7 kg (1.5 lbs.) Those of this lake were 23 cm (9") maximum and tipped the scales at little more than 0.3 kg (0.5 lb.) Georges promised to collect the other Paretroplus species during the next year, so we left him a plastic tub to keep them in until Jean could arrange to collect them. Yet another reason to return to Madagascar.
We took the car ferry back across the river and turned onto the appalling road to Manpikony, PortBerger, Antsohy, and Anbanja. It seemed a pity to cart our beautiful fishes around with us for fifteen days, so we left them at the turn-off onto the bad road, in the care of a local boy, setting up a tub near his house and shading it from the sun with mats of plaited willow. Trusting in Providence, we abandoned our catch, promising the lad a suitable reward if he did his job well.
Our trek north began: 16 km/hr (10 mph) at top speed! And at least 30 hours of travel ahead of us! At the Maevarana River, which I already knew well, we left an empty tub with the local fishermen and asked them to catch us a dozen of the Paretroplus I had discovered there the previous year. A few hours further on a beautiful river blocked our path. This turned out to be the Andranomalaza, and here there was a small town called Maromandia. The estuary was not far away, and the river here was affected by the tides. The women here were the specialists in river?fishing, while the men went off to fish at sea. Jean quickly tracked down the chief fisher woman for us, and she told us of a Paretroplus with red vertical bars which had us drooling with anticipation. We dreamed of it all night! She knew of another species as well! There would be no problem catching some for us, as she had caught fifteen the last time out.
We set off the next day in a state of extreme excitement. One sweep of the net . . . nothing. Two sweeps . . . nothing. I ended up diving, as the water was fairly clear, but in 300-400 m (300400 yards) of supposedly suitable habitat (stony bottom), I didn't see as much as the shadow of a Paretroplus. The fisher woman cast the net again and again, but still no luck. The hours passed with no results, total failure. Just when it seemed that we had been wickedly deceived, suddenly there came cries of "Damba, Damba!", the Malagasy word for Paretroplus. We all dashed into the water with buckets. And there at last was a splendid Paretroplus. And it really did have red stripes. By far the most beautiful Paretroplus we had ever found in Madagascar. Unfortunately, the two specimens captured were at least 12" in length. As they had been taken over a sandy substrate, I surmised that they were a pair guarding fry. 1 searched the area for the young but in vain. Another cast of the net secured further large specimens, so the day ended better than we had expected, and we were able to photograph and film this species in all its different color patterns.
The following day the chief fisher woman led us upstream to where she had caught the other species of Damba. After a 2 hr walk along the bank, we reached a rocky area. Diving in, I discovered several P. dami and a number of the red Paretroplus which were quite happy to be filmed. But there was no third species. We left a plastic tub, containing the two large pairs, at the fisher woman's house, and asked her to catch anything she could for us pending our return in a few days time. The tank was set up properly with battery operated filtration and aeration.
We continued north to our final port of call, Anbanja. Here too there was a beautiful broad river. We sought out the fishermen, locating their houses and waiting for them to come back from their afternoon's fishing. When they returned it was with a good supply of tilapias and numerous P. dami. Another surprise (the latter were real giants), 3040 cm (1214" in) length and more than 900 gr (2 lbs) in weight! In the course of all my wanderings around the lakes and rivers of Madagascar I must have seen hundreds of this species, but their maximum size had been 20-25 cm (8/10") with weights of only about 220 gr (0.5 lbs.) I had never before seen any this size. In death, in the fishermen's baskets, they exhibited a lovely reddish color over much of their bodies.
The next day we caught numerous small P. dami and a few more very large ones. Their size was quite incredible! I was of the opinion that this river must contain a special, giant variety. The ratio of large adults to juveniles is important. Although I tried to bring back a number of specimens of medium size, they didn't survive. Luckily I have a few youngsters.
Another, less colorful species of Paretroplus was supposedly to be found here, but all our efforts were to no avail. However, they did yield a few Ptychochromis (local name juba) which were silvery without a single black mark on their flanks. This variety is actually the original P. oligacanthus described by Bleeker.
This was the end of our journey north; we plan to explore the more distant rivers next year, starting from Diego Suarez in order to avoid the long repeat journey back. We set off southwards, stopping off at Maromandia to retrieve our fish from the fisher woman there. She had captured some juveniles of ca. 2" which were orange with red fins and red spots on their bodies. But still no trace of the other species.
When we stopped at the Maevarana River at 2 a.m. the next morning, there were only two Paretroplus left in the tub! All the others had died. At that unearthly hour I dragged the natives down to the river, where we fished for 3/4 hours and caught several dambas, which arrived back safely as we packed them in polythene bags with oxygen as soon as they were caught. I knew why the others had died ? they had spent too long in buckets after capture and had not been taken back to the holding tub until after we finished fishing. Lacking sufficient oxygen for a couple of hours is not enough to cause death, but they must have suffered damage which resulted in their dying during the next few days.
The valiant Jean next drove us to Mandritsara, another pretty village, close to the Mangaharara River. We were warmly welcomed (our arrival is always an excuse for a party) and the next day 1520 of the village youths would catch us some lamena. We had come here 4.5 years before, looking for a very colorful Ptychochromis with splendid red fins. All our searching had been in vain, as the lakes around Mandritsara proved to harbor nothing but tilapias. We concluded that the species was extinct; none of the fishermen had seen it for ages. But this year our fishermen caught us 5-6 from a single deep spot in the river. Their dorsal, anal, and caudal fins were a beautiful bright red, while the body was grey/blue without any particular spots or other markings. As unexpected pleasures go, finding this fish was quite a wonderful surprise! We tended them with great care, and they arrived alive and well in France.
Ptychochromis oligacanthus from the Sambirano river. Photo by Jean Claude Nourissat.
An undescribed species of Ptychochromis with the red finnage from the Mangaharara river. Photo by Jean Claude Nourissat.
This area was to hold another surprise for us. There is a little village where the road crosses the Sofia, the large river that drains the entire basin. Here Jean showed his photos around, and several people were familiar with the lamena, which they said was to be found in the lakes roundabout. Another "red herring" we thought. We challenged them to catch some by our return the next day.
The next day two of the boys had two nicely colored lamena a piece, caught by net in the neighboring lakes. Quite incredible, because these fish were thought to be exclusively rheophilic; making such assumptions can result in one's writing rubbish! The species appeared to be very similar to that found in the Mangaharara River.
We continued on our return journey. At nightfall we arrived to pick up our last tub, the one we had left close to a house with the fish caught near Lake Kinkony. What would we find after 15 days? All the fishes had died the previous day! There had been a storm, and they had all died at once. The young boy had kept the corpses, which were now dehydrated. They had probably died through a lack of oxygen due to some variation in atmospheric pressure or, more likely, a disease. What a nuisance! Luckily Jean would return there to fish on our behalf before our next trip the following year. We arrived without further incident back at Tana. It had been a very interesting trip, one which had gone well and showed us that the "Grand isle" still holds plenty of surprises. All the more reason to go back!