, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 1-28

The destruction of an endemic species flock: quantitative data on the decline of the haplochromine cichlids of Lake Victoria

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The Lake Victoria fish fauna included an endemic cichlid flock of more than 300 species. To boost fisheries, Nile perch (Lates sp.) was introduced into the lake in the 1950s. In the early 1980s an explosive increase of this predator was observed. Simultaneously, catches of haplochromines decreased. This paper describes the species composition of haplochromines in a research area in the Mwanza Gulf of Lake Victoria prior to the Nile perch upsurge. The decline of the haplochromines as a group and the decline of the number of species in various habitats in the Mwanza Gulf was monitored between 1979 and 1990. Of the 123+ species originally caught at a series of sampling stations ca. 80 had disappeared from the catches after 1986. In deepwater regions and in sub-littoral regions haplochromine catches decreased to virtually zero after the Nile perch boom. Haplochromines were still caught in the littoral regions where Nile perch densities were lower. However, a considerable decrease of species occurred in these regions too. It is expected that a remnant of the original haplochromine fauna will survive in the littoral region of the lake. Extrapolation of the data of the Mwanza Gulf to the entire lake would imply that approximately 200 of the 300+ endemic haplochromine species have already disappeared, or are threatened with extinction. Although fishing had an impact on the haplochromine stocks, the main cause of their decline was predation by Nile perch. The speed of decline differed between species and appeared to depend on their abundance and size, and on the degree of habitat overlap with Nile perch. Since the Nile perch upsurge, the food web of Lake Victoria has changed considerably and the total yield of the fishery has increased three to four times. Dramatic declines of native species have also been observed in other lakes as a result of the introduction of alien predators. However, such data concern less speciose communities and, in most cases, the actual process of extinction has not been monitored.