Anton Lamboj is nowadays one of the most active and influential ichthyologist dealing with the many times unjustly poorly known West African cichlids. He has visited Africa many times and is the author of several ichthyological papers dealing with the cichlids of Western Africa. But Anton is also a passionate aquarist and is the author of the bible for West African cichlid enthusiasts, the book "The Cichlid Fishes of Western Africa". Anton is an internationally invited cichlid lecturer and his talks are loaded with fantastic information about these cichlids. We are honored he agreed to answer to these questions.
Anton, would you let us know about your background, how did you become interested in fish?
I think it started very early - my grandfather had a tank with some goldfish, which I liked very much. Also, I always was fascinated by nature. From my first years on, I enjoyed much more to watch animals, to play with animals or to read books about animals than to go for football or to do some of the things small boys are usually doing. At the age of about eight I saw the first neon tetras at a veterinary house, and I was absolutely fascinated. When I was ten, I bought my first exotic fishes - one Guppy, one Black Molly and one Danio rerio, which I kept in a four-liters (one-gallon) glass. Two weeks later, it was my 10th birthday celebration, I got a 40 liters (10 gallon) tank from my parents.
You were not always an ichthyologist, what did you do before and how did you become one?
My original job was at the Austrian Railway Company. After college, I worked for 12 years as a station master - but animals (not only fishes, I also kept birds, reptiles, amphibians, insects, small mammals) and plants were a hobby of mine all the time, however fishes had always been most important for me. At the age of 30, I changed to the general headquarters of the company, to do some work in management (human resources), this was 1986. In 1988 I started studying biology, as it had been my wish for many years. I also recognized that it was not efficient to learn all by myself, I wanted more system and more structure to understand all about fishes. Fortunately I found a fantastic supervisor (Prof. Dr. Helmut Kratochvil) who accepted my interest for West African Cichlids and for systematics of these fishes (I knew from all the literature that the knowledge about these fishes was very poor, which was an important reason for me to work with them. But of course I simply found that the cichlids from these regions are wonderful in the tank too). So I made my master degree with some work on Limbochromis and Chromidotilapia guntheri. In 1997 I made my PhD with a systematic revision of Chromidotilapia. In 1998 I started to work as a lecturer at the University of Vienna - but this was a second job, I still was at the railway company at that time, for 40 hours per week. For railway, from 1998 on I was in leading position of several departments (the biggest team I had was 1,400 employees), up till 2007. In 2007 I left the railway company (after working for 33 years for it) and now I am some kind of free ichthyologist, still having the position as a lecturer at the university too.
What do you do for living nowadays?
I am getting a nice pension from the railway company, sometimes I am doing some work as consultant coach and trainer in the field of human resources for selected private companies - but this is not regularly and I only do it when I have some free time beside my activities for fish and - important too - when it is interesting. I do not like to do boring works.
Are you still an aquarist?
Of course - I can´t live without fish. And just to do strictly science would not present all the beauty and fascination of fish. 50 tanks in my basement - and I need more!!!!!!!!!!
Does your family share your passion for fish, how do they cope with it?
Unfortunately my wife and my daughter are not interested in fish, but they fully accept my passion. When I am on a tour, my wife takes care of my tanks, and she is doing it very carefully and absolutely perfect.
Would you tell us about your Aquarium Conservation Program (ACP)?
It is a network of aquarists, scientists and organizations who have a concern and understanding for the conservation issues facing freshwater fish around the world, and consequently the aquarium hobby. The main intention is to ensure that a wide spectrum of species and populations of ornamental fish remain available for human care in the future, while being conscious of their conservation status and willing to take it into consideration when practicing our hobby and/or profession. Fortunately I found great partners - Axel Jost and Tino Redlich - it would have been impossible without these two people. We want to work under cooperation with collectors or importers who are fully respectful of valid regulations, and will not endorse illegal or unethical actions or operations that may be practiced in this field. We see one of our main tasks in breeding and distributing species already in human care which are facing conservation issues according to governments or international regulations, or may be facing such regulations in the future. We are seeking to educate aquarium hobbyists about these questions, and to cooperate with relevant organizations and institutions to correct the perception of the aquarium hobby being a threat for the conservation status of many species. We seek to achieve this by promoting responsibility of aquarists towards the species currently in their care, and by publicizing information about these issues in the relevant media. In the longer term, we seek to become a partner of institutions and organizations working for the conservation of freshwater fish world-wide, and hope to be able to contribute to conservation projects in the wild in one way or the other. No one knows which species will be limited in availability tomorrow, and why they will be limited. Therefore it will be necessary to have an overview of the species currently bred in human care that currently have an official conservation status, and those that may possibly fall under such a status in the near future. To say it in other words: We are enthusiasts who want to retain a good fundament for the aquarium hobby, while also working towards conserving the biodiversity of fishes.
How is it to study cichlids in West Africa? Is it dangerous? Are places accessible? Are people friendly? How about government paperwork?
Many countries and a big number of officers are not working correctly: In some countries you can get your papers properly, but in others it is a question of how much money you give to an officer for his personal uses (the more you are under pressure of time, the more money he takes, for example). Also police, military and so on are often blocking roads, but not to correct control but for pushing people to pay some money. Especially white people are a good resource of money for them. This can be annoying, as it costs a bit of money and always a lot of time. Sometimes it can be dangerous too, as the police or military have guns, and they are often drunk.... So you cannot calculate how they will behave. Private people are friendly, most times - in small villages it is better than in towns - even if they see you very often as a possibility to get something too.
Would you share with us an experience of your liking during any of your trips to Africa?
One of the most fantastic trips was Ghana in 1991 - at the locality where we collected and observed Limbochromis robertsi, the Black Krensen creek. We found the place after one week of searching for the fish. It was a very quiet place, away from the village of Kibi (but people there had been very friendly, without their help it would not have been possible to find the place), a wonderful forest, an incredible fish. We collected and observed the species, we stayed there for more than one week. It was "tropics perfect".
Another incredible experience was Gabon 2000, when we had been invited to join a private ceremony of a clan. We danced with the people, had the banquet with them, it was a great show - but not for tourists, this was not arranged, it was a real private celebration. And we have been in the middle of this all, and accepted as part of the "family".
Are cichlids is West Africa endangered? What are the mayor threats that they face?
Some species are in the Red List (e.g. cichlids from the Cameroonian crater lakes). But I think that not only these, but also a number of other species are really endangered, e.g. Limbochromis robertsi, Chromidotilapia nana, Chromidotilapia elongata, several Parananochromis and Pelvicachromis - they are occurring in restricted forest areas, but deforestation is going on, mining, agriculture, population increases - if nothing happens to protect areas, then in about 10 or 15 years a number of species will be on the edge. As people need space, governments are often lazy and corrupt, the countries are more than hard to control and people do not have the same relation with animals as we have in our countries, a lot of species will disappear, I am sure. Also some work for the ACP, to keep species which are not to find in nature anymore.
Some cichlids in West and Central Africa have incredible adaptations to their environment, do you have a favorite cichlid in this regard? Why?
My most favorite is Limbochromis robertsi - it was possibly the most wonderful field trip, it is a beautiful and very interesting fish (can switch between cave breeding and mouth breeding behavior), and it was the most important fish for my work for the master thesis. But I also like Benitochromis species (wonderful behavior too) and Congochromis sabinae - a colorful dwarf cichlid which I named after my daughter.
What are your current projects?
The premium project is a revision of Hemichromis, which I am doing together with Bob Schelly from AMNH (American Museum of Natural History), also I am working on a phylogeny of Chromidotilapiines (together with Uli Schliewen from Munich), several descriptions (e.g. the Pelvicachromis sp. "Guinea Blue Fin", one Congochromis, two Parananochromis, one Chromidotilapia) and a revision of Pelvicachromis.
|Anton Lamboj collecting in Western Africa.|