STARTING OUT WITH THE AFRICAN CICHLIDS OF LAKE MALAWI

VICIOUS FISH FROM A PEACEFUL LAND!

The country of Malawi is located in eastern Africa, bordered on the West and the South by the country of Mozambique. Malawi possesses neither oil nor a strategic location. This has proved to be a boon, for no arrogant conqueror threatens this peaceful land. Though extremely poor (and now beset by the scourge of AIDS) the people of Malawi are noted for their courteous and out-going natures. The highest honor in this land is not some token of military victory, but, rather, a scholarship to the school set up by President Banda. Here students study the Greek and Latin classics, as did the British gentry during the reign of Queen Victoria.

On the East, Malawi is bordered by Lake Malawi, one of the world’s great lakes. This lake stretches for 600 kilometers, longer than America’s Lake Michigan. Lake Malawi is one of Africa’s Rift lakes, as is Lake Victoria and Lake Tanganyika. Africa, over the course of millions of years, is being torn apart by geologic forces — the Rift lakes are `the dotted line’ along which the continent is being ripped in two. These Rift lakes are often described as inland seas, due in part to their magnitude and also because the water is very hard and salty. Hard water contains a great quantity of minerals.

Though Malawi has no rare minerals or weapons to force itself upon the world, it does have treasure in abundance, living treasure, the beautiful cichlid fish of Lake Malawi. One can travel to Africa to spot these jewels (actually Malawi is becoming something of a trendy tourist spot), but that is not necessary. You only have to go to your local aquarium store, for these cichlids are extremely popular right here in the States.

Some things must be kept in mind in order to experience success with these fish. Most of the Lake Malawi fish are `mbuna.’ This means that they come from extremely rocky habitats. In the wild each male establishes a home base that is defended against all trespassers. Females are courted as potential mates. If they decline the male’s advances, they too are chased off.

The aquarist must provide an abundance of rocks for these mbuna to feel at home. It is best to understock the tank – use as large a tank as possible. If crowded, the Malawi cichlids will constantly fight with each other; the stress will kill all but the strongest. I like to keep mine in tanks 50 gallons or larger, one species to a tanks. I initially put 8 to 12 small fish, 2 inches say, in the tank. As the fish mature, I take out all but one or two of the males, leaving in all the females. In some species the males are differently colored than the females. The males often have many light colored spots on the anal fin — the egg-spots — while the females only have a few. The males are generally more brightly colored. The males will defend the tank as his territory and court the females.

Most Malawi cichlids are relatively easy to breed. These fish are mouthbrooders; after the male fertilizes the eggs, the female takes them in her mouth and holds them for the sake of safety. In your group of fish, if you don’t witness the spawning, the mothers will be recognized when they stop eating. The best bet is to carefully remove an egg-laden female and to place her in a tank by herself. Since she is not eating, her strength will be reduced. The other fish may subject her to evil treatment. They might also eat the babies when they are released.

When the female does release the babies, again put her in another tank by herself. She may eat her own young; at any rate she does not feed or care for them. The mother will be too weak to go right back in with the male and other females. They would quickly kill her!

The young are very easy to care for. A week or two of newly hatched brine shrimp is a good idea, but not all-important. Also feed them the same food, flake, pellet or frozen, that you feed the parents. It may be necessary to grind the food in your fingers, or to allow it to soak, for the fry to be able to swallow the food. Don’t skimp on the food, feed as many times a day as possible. Don’t skimp on the filtration either. For starters you will need an undergravel or sponge filter to remove ammonia. Carefully perform as many partial water changes as you can. When the youngster get to be about an inch, you will want to install a canister or outside power filter to handle the increasing waste load. Be careful to not initially use too powerful a filter. You don’t want to throw the babies out with the dirty water!

Water quality is very important for the adults, also. Scientifically researched water additives are now available for the Lake Malawi cichlids. You want hard, alkaline, salty water to keep malawi fish happy. Be sure to also use a conditioner to remove chlorine and chloramine. You will want a powerful canister or outside power filter to remove particulate waste. The mbuna are great for moving the gravel about. This stirs up a lot of detritus, which is definitely unsightly and also seems to make the fish uncomfortable. In most situations, an undergravel filter does a good job of controlling ammonia. A large set-up might require a wet/dry filter for sufficient biological filtration.

Crushed coral makes a good gravel for these fish. It is just the right size for them to move around. The crushed coral will also slowly dissolve and help provide minerals for the water.

No matter what sort of filter combination you decide upon, do perform frequent partial water changes. Remember to keep using the special additives that Lake Malawi cichlids require.

Though not as important as with salt water reef tank, a tank of Lake Malawi fish should be brightly lit. You want the best lighting possible in order to enjoy the awesome colors of these fish. Light is important for another reason. Many of the mbuna are basically vegetarians. It is a good idea to allow as much algae to grow as possible. This provides a healthful snack for your crew!

Many good vegetable foods, some designed just for Lake Malawi cichlids, are on the market. My guys seem to prefer the ones that contain spirulina. You can also treat with a little cooked spinach — without the butter! Malawi cichlids are not fussy. They ravenously devour just about anything.

Most of the Malawi mbuna that you see in your local store will have been raised in captivity, for, as mentioned, these fish are not shy about reproduction. Some will have been imported directly from Africa. It is believed that wild-caught fish are even more brilliantly colored than those raised in tanks.

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