Cichlids (East African) | WWF
© Helena Telkenranta / WWF

Cichlids (East Africa)

Many species of many colours

Cichlids are one of the most attractive fish species on Earth, There are hundreds of species of cichlids found in the lakes of Eastern Africa. Their bright colours and distinctive patterns make them valuable in the aquarium trade.

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Common name
Common Name


Geographic place

Geographic location

African Great Lakes

Record breaker

Record breaker!

Lake Malawi has a greater number of fish species in its waters than any other lake in the world.

Latin name

Scientific Name




Some species are critically endangered



From 2.5cm to over 90cm!

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A wonder of evolution

Cichlids are one of the wonders of evolution, with thousands of different species developing. Lake Malawi alone contains as many as 850 different species of cichlids, all of which have evolved from just one species. What is more, all but 2 are endemic to the lake!

Cichlids are famed for their fantastic breeding and reproduction habits. Some males build underwater sandcastles to impress and attract a mate. Some species work with other fish such as the kampango catfish to share a nest and earn protection from predators. Females of several cichlid species carry their fertilized eggs in their mouths to keep them safe; once hatched, the young fish will return to their mother's mouth when they sense danger.

Priority region

Because of their bright colours and peculiar behaviour, Malawi cichlids are popular among aquarium ... 
    © Helena Telkänranta / WWF
Because of their bright colours and peculiar behaviour, Malawi cichlids are popular among aquarium hobbyists.
© Helena Telkänranta / WWF

Some unusual table manners!

Not surprisingly with such a huge family, there are certain members who display rather unusual behaviour, especially when it comes to meal times! For example, the Nimbochromis livingstonii likes to play dead and then eats up any fish which comes to investigate. There are other species which pretend to be sick, another which looks like it is upside down, and another which disguises itself as seaweed. Perhaps most disturbing are the 'baby eaters', which ram mothers carrying offspring in their mouths, forcing the vulnerable young fish out!

Under threat from overfishing

IUCN lists a total of 156 cichlid species as vulnerable, 40 as endangered, and 69 ascritically endangered. 6 species are now thought to be extinct in the wild.

Some cichlid species, such as tilapia for example, are important food sources. Overfishing is the major threat facing this amazing array of cichlid species.

Other major problems include introduced species such as Nile perch and water hyacinth, and deforestation which causes siltation of the water.

Priority species

East African cichlids are a WWF priority species. WWF treats priority species as one of the most ecologically economically and/or culturally important species on our planet. And so we are working to ensure such species can live and thrive in their natural habitats.

How you can help

  • When buying acquarium fish, always ensure they have been bred in captivity, rather than taken from their natural habitat.


What is WWF doing?

WWF's work to protect cichlids focuses on protecting and restoring the lakes where they live.

Its projects in this area are concerned with appropriate management of fishing, climate change mitigation and effective watershed management. Specific projects also look at environmental education and establishing sustainable tourism enterprises.

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Did you know?

  • There are more species of cichlids than there are of any other verterbrate species.
  • Sadly, there are also more species of cichlids which are endangered than any other verterbrate species.
  • In some cichlid species which live in groups, the dominant female will change sex if the male of the group dies.

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© Cichlid wallpaper © Michel Roggo / WWF

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