|Ad Konings in San Antonio, 1994. Photo by Jan Szaruk.|
Ad Konings, from Rotterdam (Now living in El Paso, Texas), well know worldwide cichlid specialist, speaker, photographer, observer, author, editor, publisher and good friend, kindly concedes this interview for the purpose of this home page. Ad devotes his life to his family, friends, and of course cichlids, on which he is among the few more knowledgeable persons in the world. The interview took place during a cichlid photographic expedition in Bacalar, México, near the border between México and Belize in March, 1997.
Ad, thank you very much for giving me this interview. To start, I would like to know when your interest in fish was born?
My interest for fish was apparently born when I was two years old, when I ended up falling into my grandmother's pond and almost drowned. But it really started when I was twelve years old and a friend of mine had a tank in his home. I liked it much more than he did. I was buying fish for him, because my mother didn't allow me to have a tank at home myself. But two years later, my friend's mom suggested to my mom that I should have a tank for me as well. My first tank was 60x30x30 centimeters and about (I think) six months later my next tank was about 180x60x60 centimeters. They contained all kinds of regular fish such as cardinal tetras, but there were already at that time a few dwarf cichlids in there like Apistogramma. When I had the big tank I used the small tank for breeding purposes, and the first fish I put in there was Julidochromis marlieri. And we are talking about 24 years ago that I had the first J. marlieri that were available in Holland, and, interestingly enough, they were a pair, and they bred within a month. They were wild fish from Burundi. I tried to keep the "Princess of Burundi" Neolamprologus brichardi, and also they were the first available in Rotterdam. I got four of them and I put them in the big tank, the 180 centimeters one, but the water in that tank was acid because I had some peat and driftwood in it. So four pretty expensive fish died overnight. I went back to my supplier, which was Dirk Verduyn from "Verduyin cichlids". I explained the situation and he said "Okey, the next pair, not four, but the next pair you can get for half the price". So I bought another pair, and he told me I had to put it in another tank, not together with the other fish. So I put it together with the J. marlieri in the smaller tank. As I said, that tank was not big, just 60 centimeters long. Both J. marlieri and the "Princess of Burundi" were breeding together in the same tank, and I was successful in getting lots of fry.
Could you tell me something about your development in cichlid keeping?
As I said, when I was 14 I started with cichlids, and of course when you have bred a few cichlids you want to have more tanks, so I got more tanks. I was still going to school at that time and occasionally I had so many fry that I needed the help of my mom to feed them, as during the day I was out in school and they needed to be fed while I was away.
In 1980, I was helping Dirk Verduyin on Saturdays. Verduyin was by far the biggest store in Holland dealing with cichlids. We went every moth to Germany to the different wholesalers and importers of Malawi and Tanganyika cichlids, and we got all the nice stuff that they had and imported it to Holland. Also my friend, who is Frans Hertog, was very interested in cichlids. As soon as he told me there was a cichlid club in Holland, I became a member, and I am still a member. We were so interested in cichlids that we tried to make Verduyin buy as many different species as possible, and 15 years ago, we had about something like 300 different species in stock. As soon as we found out there were new species available, we would drive the whole day to pick up some fishes somewhere, to have them available. And in the meantime, we would get every rare fish that we could find in Germany, and we would have it also in Holland in our own tanks.
During that time I was studying biology, since I was interested in fish, but I knew that if studied Ichthyology there would be no job for me, so I did medical biology instead. Not because I was so much interested in the human organism, but because I had better chance of finding a job. Even so, I was very interested in fish, in the behavior and evolution of fish, and in particular, cichlids.
You are a worldwide recognized Malawi cichlid expert nowadays. You have discovered and described many cichlid species from that lake, as well as observed fascinating behavior on many of those fish for the first time. Your last book on Malawi cichlids is one of the best books ever written about cichlids. Could you tell us about your first visit to Lake Malawi?
I think it was in 1980, when a friend of mine and I went for the first time to Lake Malawi. I was very glad I had the opportunity to go to Malawi for the first time, with Dirk Verduyin and with Frans Hertog. We were Stuart Grant's first visitors there. He organized everything for us, we only had to arrive there and all the rest was already done. We did quite a lot in those three weeks we were there, but if I look back I really didn't see too much of fish. Of course I saw a lot of fish but I really didn't know which ones they were, how they would behave, how the distribution was. I just saw a lot of fish that I was used to see in the aquarium back home. But still, there were a LOT of fish that I didn't know. I was really interested in finding out about these fish.
The trip to Malawi was pretty interesting. It was long ago, 17 years. As I said, we were the first visitors to Stuart Grant, whom we had never seen before. We had heard about him and Dirk found out his telephone number and I still remember the first call we did. I made the call because I was the one who spoke English of the three of us. The line was very bad and it took a while before we heard him, and another while for him to hear us back. But anyway, what we found out is that he was a very interesting and very nice person, and that everything would be arranged for us, we just had to fly down there.
The flight took us a long time. We had to go to London and then to various places before we arrived in Malawi. It was with British Airways on board of a super VC-10. When we arrived, a car was waiting, and the first night we would stay in Zomba plateau. There we could have an overview of the great rift in Africa. It was a really beautiful place, but still there were cockroaches in it. From then on we went north to the southern part of the lake to Cape Mclear, where we first met Stuart Grant. He had already organized a few days for us. And at that time we flew to Blantyre not to Lilongue. From then on he organized the boats of Norman Edwards, who was then exporting fish from Cape Maclear. His head diver was James Pindani, who took us out to the several islands of cape Maclear.
For diving we always used the hookah gear, which is a compressor in the boat which produces about 7 to 10 atmospheres of air pressure. From the compressor we had two long hoses of fifty meters with a regulator at the end. This way we could dive as long as we wanted even though we couldn't go much deeper than ten meters. It was very interesting to see so many fish around. We were really amazed.
Stuart said he would take us up to Salima where he has his collecting station. We were placed in a hotel. At that time it was called the "Grand Beach Hotel". We were there in 1980 and the water had risen quite a bit and taken away all the sand of the so-called "Grand beach". The water had come so high, that it even destroyed two parts of the hotel, the rooms were just knocked out by the water. After this, the place was locally known as the no-beach hotel. Anyway, the service was pretty bad. The room was quite good though. It was an old colonial hotel. We couldn't stay in Stuart's place because he was living in a converted garage, which had only one bed in a room and there was not much else than that bed where he slept.
Stuart picked us up everyday and went to several places in the south of the lake. We went to Mbenji island, at that time it was really far away because there was no real outboard, they only had those small horse power seagulls, and it took us about six hours to get there. Now it takes about three and a half hours. We stayed there. We were some of the very very few white people that ever had been on that island, so the people were staring at us. When we came to it it was very dark and as soon as we lit a flashlight we got our legs completely covered with millions of flies. The flies were eating from the juices of the drying fish that were all over the place. We got a foam mattress from Stuart's, which we slept on. We couldn't use any light, because as soon as you would switch it on, you would be covered with flies. We stayed two nights there, we did some diving, some snorkeling, and it was, of course, very interesting.
At that time Stuart still had a small Cessna plane, in which he flew us to Likoma Island. The plane was the only way for him to get the fish from Likoma Island. He had a team catching fish around that island and Chisumulu Island. We also flew around Chisumulu Island, although at that time we didn't go down there.
It was a very impressive and interesting trip. We also went to some wild part to see some elephants and water buffalo, but of course our main interest was fish. Stuart liked us a lot because we were so enthusiastic about what the fish looked like, and that there were so many with such incredible colors, we couldn't believe it. That made him feel very good.
You have dived many times in Lakes Malawi and Tanganyika, you should have had many amazing experiences during those dives in such beautiful and wild places. Could you tell us about one of those experiences that for some reason you particularly recall?
One of my interesting trips was my third trip, which I made with Walter Dieckoff. This was really a marathon trip, because we wanted to survey the entire Malawi country coast. We couldn't do it, though we did do about three quarters of the Malawi coast. But it was very interesting, because this was after Tony Ribbink and his colleagues had published their journal about mbuna, the rock dwelling fish of the lake. A lot of rock dwelling fish had been known and while we were on the trip we found many more species than those that were in his book. We found at least 50 or 60 more species, which was of course very interesting for us. Dieckoff is really a very good photographer. He didn't know what species they all were, but he had the patience to wait to get the right shot of a particular fish.
We started from Salima in the southern part of the lake where Stuart was located. I do all my trips from Stuart's out because he supplies us with the boat and equipment. We went from Salima to the border with Tanzania in the north, and it took us 52 hours without interruption to get there. And from there on we would slowly come back and sample every area which we thought was interesting to dive. It took us almost six weeks to come back to Salima.
We didn't go south of Salima, but in the same year, in December, on my own, there was another two weeks' trip, and after that I had done the Malawi part of the lake. But it was very interesting when I went with Walter Dieckoff to the northern part. There were villages with children, which had never seen a white man before. As soon as they noticed there were white people in the boat, they came to shore and were even allowed to get out of school. The whole class was then out on shore. They just wanted to know what was going on. This was interesting, except when you had a "call of nature" and your were approaching the shore with a roll of toilet paper in your hand. The children, as they had never seen toilet paper as well, thought they were going to get something from you, so they were fighting to be the first one who was going to meet you because they wanted to have what you had in your hand. But on the other hand, I wanted some privacy, of course, and then I had to climb over rocks and they were still following me. It was really difficult.
Another interesting point was when I went for the second time to Mozambique to make a survey. The best way to get into Mozambique was to enter by Likoma Island, which is halfway in the lake. It is, from there, less than an hour by boat to Mozambique, and it is also the official entering point to the country. As Stuart's dive team was often going into Mozambique, they knew the immigration officials, so it was logical for us to go with them as the officials would consider us part of the same group. In this way they wouldn't shoot us or cause us any problem as the war was just over. We even found unexploded bombs in the water near the place where we entered the country.
One of the guys, Barnabas, the team leader, talked a lot. We knew that he was the best person to take us. Another person who was with us was Louis, a very good diver. He was just under the orders of Barnabas. We were going along the coast and I was looking for places with very clear water, and there was one place far out off the coast where there were some rocks, a very tiny island. Just a few rocks sticking out of the water. I liked the place because the farther away from the shore the cleaner the water usually is, much better for taking pictures. So we went with the open boat to these rocks and when we were about a hundred meters away, we saw five big crocodiles basking in the sun on these rocks, and when we got closer they all went into the water. Still, I wanted to know what kind of fish were there, but I didn't wanted to dive so close to that island. I asked to go a little bit farther so we went about fifty meters away from the island and then I said "Well, let's dive here". Barnabas started to say that the people of Likoma were not afraid of the crocodiles because they are inoffensive. They are brave divers and so. And then I told him "Alright Barnabas, you and me are going to dive here". He replied "No, no, no Louis can dive here with you". He was, of course, afraid crocodiles would eat him. But anyway, I let Louis go before me, and when I saw he wouldn't be immediately eaten away by crocodiles, I also jumped into the water. But it was not a real nice experience; there was just one new species there. And I will never dive there again.
You have taken thousands of pictures both in Africa and Central America, I know that many of your pictures could thrill you, but I would like to know if among those there is a special one that you like, and why is that?
Well, there are of course a lot of pictures that I would like, especially of Mexican cichlids. Not because you are here, but because they are substrate brooders and you can take pictures of both male and female with babies around, which is more interesting to look at from a picture point of view, than a single fish. But still the picture I do like most is of a really plainly colored Lamprologus callipterus, and it is a picture that I like because the males defend a harem and the females are much smaller than the males and they hide in snail shells where they spawn. Since the females are much smaller it just was for me a kind of interesting point to try to get both sexes in the same picture, to show the people the big difference in the size. I managed to do that, and every time that I show this picture, people say: "ahhhhh". And there is no color whatsoever on the fish, it is just because it is so interesting to see. Still, I believe a lot of people think, at least I do, that it is one of the better pictures that I have.
Your excellent "Cichlid yearbook" series have come out on the market every one of the last six years, one of the best sources of cichlid information available. I would like to know what satisfactions and frustrations those books have brought to you.
The satisfaction is to know, myself, firsthand, the new information about the cichlids, because you can know a lot about cichlids but you can not know a lot about ALL cichlids. There are people that specialize in Central American, Malawian, Tanganyikan, West African, South American cichlids, even several groups of South American cichlids, and in several disciplines, such as evolution, taxonomy, DNA work, and scientific work. And of course there are a lot of hobbyist that have divided themselves into branches of cichlid keeping. For me it was just how can I get to know all this very good new information myself firsthand. Then I wanted to put it together in such a way that hobbyists like to read it and look at the very nice pictures (should be very nice pictures), just to create an interest in keeping cichlids.
The frustration is that only a few hobbyists want this kind of information. Or at least in such a way that they can afford or want to spend money to buy the "Cichlids yearbook". Because we have a very low run in five different languages, it is very difficult for me to sell them every year and this has been really a pity because we REALLY try to give the best articles from the best people around the world. We also try to give an insight into many fish that very few people have ever seen, but which will be seen in three or four year from now. I wanted to give all that information from real specialists.
And because of this kind of frustration, I may not be able to continue at the same pace as I have been doing it in the last six years, because it's costing me too much to produce them. I work for every book three or four months day and night and every weekend just to get it in the best way I can. Also when you are working with twenty different authors and you have to get all the articles on time, and then you have to get them translated in four other languages to have them together at the same time is really very difficult to achieve. And finally when the product is very nice and it turns out that very few people want it, it is kind of frustrating.
Many cichlid interested people are very familiar with the books of "Cichlid Press", maybe the most widely read books on Cichlids available. I would like to know what plans you have for the future of "Cichlid Press" (without giving away any business secret), what books are in the cooking?
For this year 1997 I am planning a special on Utaka, and maybe in the back part of the book I will have a few scientific descriptions of some new species. The main thing is that I want to show the beautiful side of Utaka from Lake Malawi. Because there are many different species there are still several, which have not been publicized in my latest book. Therefore I want to put some emphasis in this special book which will only appear in English and German, maybe as a soft cover or luxury magazine or book.
Then I am still thinking about the "Cichlids yearbook" number seven, which may appear next year, but I am still not sure about that. And then I have to re-make the Tanganyikan cichlids book but I still have to visit the central coast of the lake. I refer to the central eastern coast (of Tanzania), so to have seen all the fish by myself and not rely on sayings from other people. I hope to do it this year.
For the next year, 1998, I will be working on the new Tanganyikan cichlids book. I will also make some books of the "Back to nature" series. I did the Tanganyikan book this year and I will make a small Malawi book for the next year. For the rest I am interested in publishing with Juan Miguel Artigas first a book about Mexican cichlids and other fishes, it will be a beautiful book with mainly underwater and habitat pictures. I am also planning a book with Frank Warzel about Crenicichla, but that may take another two years before it is ready to be published. These are basically my plans for the next couple of years.
You were close to the late Ethelwyn Trewawas, the scientist expert on African Cichlids, known better for her monumental work on Tilapines and the reclassification of most Malawi Haplochromines. Could you tell us about your relationship and give us an opinion on her work?
Well what I liked of her, besides that she was a very pleasant person, is that she really loved the fish. Not all scientists love the fish that they work with. Hobbyist love their fish, but dealers, wholesalers and most scientists don't love the fish. They like to work with them but they are not really interested in their behavior, their evolution. So she loved the fish and not just cichlid fish but any fish species, any particular behavior of fish, and therefore I liked her, because I can relate to her, because I also love the fish like other hobbyists do.
She also respected my work, I am not a learned ichthyologist. I am a biologist but I am not a school learned ichthyologist. But she valued my work and she was interested in it, and she always had some comments on my work, what I should look for, what I should do. She was also interested to hear what my ideas were about cichlids. In particular those species she had worked on before. She was really a lovely person to be with. I think she also respected my work so much that she decided, when her eyesight became very bad, to give me her stereo microscope, the one that she had been using for the last 30 years, looking at fish at the museum and at home. I was really thrilled to get this instrument as I didn't have any, and she was really happy that I accepted it, and that I would continue the work she had been doing the last 60 or 70 years.
I was really depressed when I got a call informing me that she had passed away. But she was already 93 years old, which is really a respectful age. But still we were all very depressed. I remember her very well and I expect that I am doing the kind of work with Cichlids that she expected me to do. I love cichlids so I think she would be happy.
You have recently moved from Germany to El Paso, and I know that besides your work with cichlids you are also an avid hobbyist. I would like to know what plans do you have for your cichlid keeping now that you have moved.
Well I want to keep a thousand tanks but this plan was torpedoed by my wife who said that the 42 tanks I kept in Germany were way too much. And that if I was going to stay away almost every weekend as I did before in Germany, she would only feed fish in two tanks. So I guess I will only have two large tanks. In one tank I will keep Tanganyikan cichlids and in the other one Mexican Cichlids. At the moment I don't have anything yet because I just moved to the United States and I have a lot of speaking commitments. This interview is made at the border between México and Belize so I am on another trip with Juan Miguel. And in July I will make another trip to Africa with the BBC of London. Then in September and October I have to guide a tour in Malawi and Mozambique. After that I have two more speaking engagements but then I will have more time to set up my tanks.
Thank you very much for your time and replies Ad, Is there is something you would like to add to all what you just said?
Yes, I would like to add that this Sauza tequila is pretty good!
With special thanks to Lee Ann Oslen for correcting grammar in this text