|Felipe Cantera doing fieldwork in Uruguay, 2004.|
Felipe Cantera, from Uruguay, probably the person that better and more intimately knows the fish fauna of his country, has organized for many people along several years collecting trips to wonderful places in Uruguay. Felipe has been as well the discoverer of many new fish species. I really value that Felipe has granted me this exclusive interview for the Cichlid Room Companion, which surely will make us turn our eyes to the wonderful fish fauna of Uruguay.
You are a person in very close contact with nature; tell us about your passion. How did you get started with fish?
Since a small kid and in spite of being born in the capitol city of Uruguay, Montevideo, my family comes from within the country and since I can remember my passion has been the Uruguayan country side and its environment; the landscapes, the people, the wildlife, the odors, etc, etc so in every free time I had, I would travel to the area where my family owns some land so I could carry on my two favorite hobbies; to ride and to fish.
For those of us not familiarized, could you tell us about the ichthyofauna in Uruguay?
With all due respect, I truly believe there is nobody that can truly talk about the ichthyofauna of Uruguay. Certainly many can talk about parts of it, but unfortunately today there is nobody that knows most about it. For me, who makes a living capturing fish and guiding local and foreigner aquarists through Uruguay, it is everyday clearer that there is some much ahead to learn and that in a good deal its understanding depends on if we can get a good working relationship with ichthyologists around the world that support us, or if our government someday decides to support the local scientists that may want to research into it. Uruguay could be "Virgin lands" or perhaps better said "Virgin waters" in this subject. Without any place for doubt the Uruguayan ichthyofauna is very diverse and in spite of being a small country, its geographical situation and its many drainages make Uruguay being extremely interesting in this regard. There are many undescribed species that are in need of study and surely there is a big amount of species that we don't even yet know they exist. But I believe if the interested parties would get together and try to produce a work in this regard, it would be easier than try to resolve it on an individual basis. Sometimes the interest to "stand out" seems to be stronger that the common end we are pursuing.
The new wonderful Gymnogeophagus from Uruguay you have brought into the Cichlid hobby have made a big splash worldwide, just as we thought not much very different was expected anymore from South America. Could you tell us what do you foresee as their establishment in the hobby?
I think there is enough place in the hobby for our species, those that we know as well as those we still don't. As I mentioned before the geographical situation of the country makes our ichthyofauna being very interesting, for many cichlids groups, Uruguay is their southernmost habitat, tolerating a changing weather where temperatures can reach 30° Celsius down to a few degrees over zero. I believe a problem for the exportation is the high cost of airfare that we have in Uruguay, making a bad impact on the competition with neighboring countries in South America. Some other aspects to consider include the bad information about these species and the lack of marketing they have. If we talk about cichlids, I believe that our cichlids are extremely attractive and they should have very good acceptance if more dealer would decide to include them in their offer.
New exciting species of Cichlasoma have been found in Uruguay recently, many by you, could you tell us about them?
The 'Cichlasoma' is a delicate subject, and in spite that we are up to date to those species present in the Uruguay, I think the question is more proper for an ichthyologist than for a collector like me. Just a few days ago we had the visit of Dr. Sven Kullander, his second visit with us. With Sven we covered the north and northeastern part of Uruguay. Sven took many samples of classified and unclassified cichlids. We hope that someone serious shows interest and shed some light on all this darkness that todays falls over our cichlids. Going directly to the question, I think that in Crenicichlas, like in Gymnogeophagus as in "Cichlasomas" we could consider between eight to ten new species for the hobby.
What is the state of fish habitats in Uruguay, any areas of concern?
Uruguay is a country without large scale industrialization, and the bigger industries are closest to the capitol city, Montevideo, which houses half the three million inhabitants in Uruguay. The habitat problems due to pollution do exist but are very limited due to the demography of the country. The main commercial activity outside the bigger cities is cattle raising and luckily most of the water courses are free of pollution. But concerning care for the environment among the population still a lot has to be worked out, especially closer to the bigger cities. The bigger river drainages, like the Rio Negro, Rio Uruguay, Rio Santa Lucia and others are free of problems so far, which it doesn't mean much as I understand it, as basic education is lacking in schools in regards to respect for the environment, and prevention is logically preferred.
Could you tell us something about your favorite trip with fish collectors?
All the trips that I have organized have been different. It is impossible to say that one has been better than the other. Luckily, so far all the foreigners that have come to Uruguay have been looking for for what we really want to show them; the natural environment, the most species as possible, good and close contact with the people in each region to visit. And without a doubt that feeling of being "In the middle of nowhere". Being able to capture cichlids and other species in places where very few (or nobody) has capture them before, produces a feeling hard to explain, and better yet if the environment is ideal for such activity. But, I think that the fact that our fish are so little known abroad makes that everybody that comes here does with a feeling of discovering, so what we look forward is not to offer luxury but quality of service.
What do you think of amateur aquarists heading into ichthyologically unexplored areas, bringing back fish, and attempting to write about them in popular magazines without consulting local sources?
I think we all are inter dependable; The researcher, the aquarist and the field worker. But I believe that the mutual collaboration and interchange of information has to be done by each doing what it does best; The ichthyologist researching, the aquarists studying what he keeps in captivity, and we collectors searching for what our environment has to offer and passing it to those that research on them. I explain it differently; After so many years of fieldwork through all of my country, I find myself very capable to capture fish and determine immediately if we are seeing a new species. But to reproduce them in captivity and dedicate them the necessary knowledge to classify them. I think it would be for me as difficult as it is for any aquarist or foreign ichthyologist to find and capture the fish with the proficiency that we do it. Many people has the need to be acknowledged and I believe it take us to want to do more than what we really can do. I think that if we keep doing what we can do better, and add a little humbleness and a lot of team work, many things would be different.
What is the state of the Hobby in Uruguay?
With an unique and important aquarists association (AUDA), that it is always there in spite of the incredible financial difficulties my country passes, there is every day more people showing interest for our own native fishes, even with the interest for the native fauna still low because few have actually worked on and offered it. There are many important breeders but they do not do native fish. I think it is nobodies fault; the aquarists buys what it is offered to them. Up to the moment nobody offers native species, so it is difficult that the species to the buyers. The same happens to me with tents of foreign aquarists that ask me who sells in their countries fishes from Uruguay. If the answer is "nobody", it is very hard that the interested parties manage to acquire them.
Coming back to the topic of native aquarists, I believe that it is gradually changing; with the access to the Internet, new magazines that come from abroad, and participating in trips like those we organize, there are everyday more those that discover the wonderful world of Uruguayan fish species. What could be better, it is an extra attractive to be able to capture your own fish, besides recollecting plants, wood and the substrate from their own habitats!
Is your family involved in your fish passion?
Maybe not in what refers to the fish, but it is in what refers to the fieldwork. It is important to state clear that beyond my passion for our fish, particularly our cichlids, this passion would not be the same if I could not do it in the way I do it, with this environment. I also breed snakes, but those I keep in captivity and beyond the fact that many have been captured by me, many others are exotics and that is where the mayor difference in relation to fish is in regards to my interest. In what it is concerned to reptiles, it is for me a hobby to keep them and breed them in captivity. While with fish, it is a passion for capturing them and doing the fieldwork. If I could not capture them and search for them, it would not be the same. That is the most interesting thing for me; to search for them and being able to say where they are found. And also to make sure that there are always new surprises awaiting!!
What are your plans in the future?
To be able to make a living in Uruguay doing what I am doing is a very difficult enterprise and nothing is clear in what refers to my future. I work on an area of low interest; I am the only one that breeds snakes with a didactic objective, organize fieldtrips and capture native fish. But since 1997 when I returned to Uruguay after 21 years living in Sweden I keep fighting to be able to stay here doing what I love the most.
Many times the money is not enough to cover the monthly bills, but luckily there is always something showing up that helps me to keep going. So the plan is not to have a plan, but to keep doing what I love to do in spite of the difficulties.
A project I do have is to write some type of guide about our cichlids and their habitats. Not written from the viewpoint of an aquarist or with scientific information, as I am not one or the other. But to focus it on my experience in the fieldwork.