A common current topic of concern among cichlid lovers is that of conservation. Basically most people would agree on the accelerated decay of our natural inheritance. Our natural environment is nowadays put under a tremendous pressure as a result of human always expanding activities, supported in what many of us have no problem to justify as valid reasons.
Many aquarists, by nature interested in life diversity, enter in panic every time they learn about habitats of their beloved cichlids that get endangered because of human activity, with nothing or almost nothing they can do about it. One recent example is the approval (after a long environmentalfight) the Brazilian government has given to the construction of a huge hydroelectric project in Rio Xingú, that will affect the endemic fauna of that wonderful river and that or Rio Madeira, both key rivers of the Amazon basin. Another example is the extirpation of many of the endemic cichlid species from Lake Victoria by the introduction of the Nile perch (Lates niloticus). Many of the species are gone before we can have a scientific description for them. Species remaining are facing a change in their natural habitat that may lead them to extinction all the same. This kind of examples multiply every passing year here and there and it would be tiresome (and certainly depressing) to keep listing them here.
Then comes the topic conservation. What can we do beyond signing support letters (that in most cases have little to no effect) to preserve aquatic diversity? The simple answer is: “save the fish in your aquariums”. Actually, this sounds good at first thought but the implications go far beyond our initial considerations. Is it really worth to save fish in our aquariums? Opinions vary in this respect.
In the first place it comes the issue of the genetic integrity of the specimens kept in an aquarium. It is said by some that it is worthless to keep species in captivity, as their genetic integrity starts to shift away from that they have in their natural habitat as soon as the first generation hits the aquarium environment. This is certainly true, but on the other hand, does that make it worthless to keep a species for long term in captivity? I don’t think so,aca even while I agree that the genetic framework of a species shifts away as soon as they hit an artificial environment, that does not mean it is lost or cannot be recovered. I believe that given a good number of specimens kept in captivity (to avoid inherited genetic defects, like those found in captive populations of the Goodeid Skiffia francesca, who have the tendency to swim sideways, kept in captivity since its reported last collection back in 1967), the genetic integrity can be mostly recovered once the organism returns to the restored habitat.
In this regard I remember as a kid putting veil-tail guppies in large outside pools, after several generations I found out that the carefully selected traits breeders achieved after many generations, that made a veil-tail guppy or fancy swordtail, had reverted back to those of wild specimens, given the semi-natural conditions of the big pool. The organism will adapt to the new environment, or perish. What better than nature engineered morphology? The problem is, if we save an organism in aquarium, what happens to the rest of the organisms that were part of the intricate environmentally balanced network they were part of? Those organisms lost, the saved organism can hardly be the same, even if returned to the restored habitat. In any case, the organism will either perish in the new conditions or thrive in the new circumstances.
Nevertheless, I strongly believe that even if we manage to lead to extinction most of the species, a whole new balanced eco-fauna will evolve from those few organisms remaining. We are not so powerful as we like to think, believing that we can finish with life forms if we feel like it, and it doesn't really matter, as we as humans are all that is important. We just can’t and I feel that strongly. We as humans certainly will be gone before that happens. And a whole new set of species will evolve from those surviving our aggression. I even believe that intelligence and love will evolve again as we know them, but in other beings that may study us, like we study dinosaurs. The problem of all this is, we (and our descendents in the short term) will be deprived of the wonderful assemblage of life, which supplies us so incredibly profusely with resources, beauty, peace and knowledge.
So, do I think it is worth to keep captive populations of endangered organisms? I repeat I believe it is, and probably it is our only way to give them a chance as aquarists, regardless of the fact that many of those organisms will probably not be able to thrive in the new conditions they will encounter when we take them back to their restored habitats, or those we create for them
Keeping captive individuals with the aim of conservation is however not as easy as we can think. One person can lead as species to breed in their captive conditions for one or two generations with little problem, but making them breed for many consecutive generations with little loss of their natural traits is a completely different matter. I highly respect people like James Langhammer, who has done it for Skiffia francesae and Hubbsina turneri, or my favorite, Rosario LaCorte, who when I visited him back in 2001 showed me those incredible tetra and rainbow fish colonies he had been keeping consecutively for 35 years! You need to be a great aquarist to achieve that!
A conservation minded aquarist wanting to save a species will face several problems, first of all, lack of encouragement. It requires a lot of discipline to keep a species for a long time, devoting the (most of the times) very restricted resources an aquarist counts with, to a single species.
The clubs "breeding award programs" that reward the number of species reproduced do little help to conservation, they actually act in counter sense to it, I believe. Breeding award programs should reward long term maintenance of a species instead of the number of species reproduced. In my view, there is no value but that of ego pumping in breeding many different species, and then get rid of them.
The commercial value of a preserved but readily available species goes down to nothing, as most times the conservation minded aquarist is eager to give away some stock to other interested parties. No money in a fish, many breeders won’t even consider allotting space to them for a generation. So, how to achieve genetic integrity if nobody else wants to keep a population of a species to later share stock with?
Many conservation efforts I have seen have wasted away in boredom and lack of meaning, and finally threw out the board. It is easy to say “yeah preserve one species”, much harder is to actually do it yourself. So, in my belief conservation efforts must take these facts into consideration. Clubs must support long term conservation of a species, if they really care for conservation, beyond being politically correct. Populations should be monitored and people working with one species should always keep in contact with other people working with them, to share information, stock and overall, support. As I mentioned, those who benefit will just be ourselves!
Have all of you a year full of health, excitement and love! Enjoy the wonderful nature we still have!
p.d. This editorial was written in December, 2010, but for technical reasons it is published in January. So I publish it as a late December editorial, as a new topic will be published in the coming days