Lake Tanganyika is the longest freshwater lake in the world. It stretches for more than 400 miles across central Africa and provides a home to some of the most extraordinary aquatic organisms on the planet. But this wonderful sanctuary – and its inhabitants – are in danger.
Pesticide runoff from farms, sewage and overexploitation by collectors and the ornamental fish trade are destroying life in the lake. In particular, these forces are driving many groups of cichlids—of which there are more than 240 species in Lake Tanganyika—to extinction.
It’s an unsettling story chronicled over the past 20 years by Spanish photographer Angel Fitor – who just won the Portfolio award at Wildlife Photographer of the Year, which opened at London’s Natural History Museum this week. His photos reveal, in detail, the fascinating nature of the tilapia fish in the lake and the threats they face.
Imagine fish taking care of their babies with care close to humans taking care of their babies. It looks like a fairy tale. But that’s what tilapia do,” Vitor said Foreman. This behavior was revealed in stark detail in one of Fitor’s winning photos. A female yellow sand crustacean was seen releasing fry from her mouth shelter. Its small fish stays in its mouth for comfort and protection, occasionally left to feed – but will rush back at any sign of danger.
Another photo shows a large crustacean building a sand trellis – a spawning nest – with its mouth. Once complete, the cichlid performs an underwater dance to attract mates, a performance that usually takes place in the morning when incoming sunlight is better reflected off the iridescent scales of the fish.
Vitor said his interest in tilapia began in the 1970s when, as a child, he saw a bright yellow fish at a pet store, and fell in love with it. “Years later, I found out it was the Tanganyika fish and became obsessed with it – so when I became a photographer it was almost inevitable that I would focus on the tilapia of Lake Tanganyika.”
The lake is the oldest of the Great Lakes in East Africa and is bordered by Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burundi, and Zambia. In recent years, the number of people living around the shores of the lake has risen to 10 million.
“It’s a fairly large lake, but there are a lot of people living around it,” Vitor said. “The main attraction is the lake fish which is a major source of food, and the quantities caught now are becoming a serious problem.
“In addition, there are significant losses of wild habitats that are being cleared to provide land for agriculture near their shores.”
The result is a triple wave of overfishing, increasing amounts of sewage being dumped, and rising levels of pesticides and nutrients that seep from farms into the streams that feed the lake. It all causes damage.
However, there is another threat to the tilapia fish in Lake Tanganyika: the uncontrolled aggregation of many species to meet the growing global demand for aquarium fish.
“Trade is basically unregulated,” Vitor said. “Anyone can pay $100 for a collector’s license and then take whatever they want. It’s pushing some species over the edge. Indeed, some native species of tilapia are gone. I’ve been diving in places where you can see hundreds of thousands of fish around the reef, And then when I came back there was nothing left of it. They were all taken away by collectors. It’s really sad. I took these pictures to let the world know what a loss we have if we continue this way.”
Rosamund Kidman Cox, chair of the competition jury, described Fitor’s portfolio as fantastic. “Firstly, the quality of the formations, created at eye level underwater, under difficult conditions. Secondly, the small tilapia itself, found only in one African lake. Third, the range of behavior depicted. It is a true trilogy.”
Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition opens at London’s Natural History Museum October 15.