The following article was written by Marc Elieson, he has allowed me to reproduce it here for you. It will explain what you will need to set up your own rift lake community. This is just a small sampling of what is available on his website. I strongly suggest you visit his site for many more articles and information.

Copyright © 2000 Marc Elieson

This is a picture of my ( Marc Elieson) 135-gallon show tank, which has some 28 different species of African Cichlids, native to two of the great rift lakes of Africa–Victoria and Malawi. Click on the picture to Visit his site for much more.


Choosing the Right Size Tank

Often, the size of the tank is not the optional factor, but rather, hobbyists are forced to ask, what will work in my already existing tank? Well, there are too many fish out there to go species by species, but in general, I recommend a 55 gallon tank as the minimal size. This is the same as a 200 Liter tank. Smaller tanks will work for some dwarf species, Tanganyikan Shell-Dwellers, and Victorian Hap’s, but even for these, I would not go under 35 gallons unless you are willing to house just one or two of these fish. Part of the reason being is that African Rift Lake aquariums must be aquascaped with lots of rock. Once you get the rock in your tank, you have lost a lot of the available swimming space and available oxygen. Plus, a smaller tank will heighten aggression, because there is less territory to claim.

pH Levels

pH is a measure of the acidity or alkalinity of the water, or in other words, the availability or unavailability of Hydrogen ions. What does this mean for your fish? Well, African Cichlids enjoy alkaline water conditions (i.e., pH above 7.0). pH levels vary depending upon the lake. The ranges for the three rift lakes are as follows:

Lake Malawi………………7.4 – 8.6

Lake Tanganyika………..7.8 – 9.0

Lake Victoria………………7.2 – 8.6

These values are approximate ranges. In nature, the pH levels will vary somewhat as the levels of the lakes will rise and fall through the years, making them either less salty or more salty. In the aquarium, African Cichlids can adapt to wide ranges of pH. What you need to be mindful of is to not make any rapid adjustments to the pH level. Such a careless or unknowing act will severely shock your fish, suppressing their immune system, making them more susceptible to disease. Keeping in mind all that I have said, I recommend keeping African Cichlids at a stable pH of 8.2 – 8.4. Fish from all three rift lakes appreciate pH levels within this range.

The water from these lakes is very hard, containing many dissolved minerals and salts, such as carbonate and magnesium. If you live in an area with hard water, you may count yourself very lucky. But for those who do not, there are many easy measures you may take to make your water more “hard.” Crushed coral sand, shells, limestone, and other rocks such as slate are good at pushing the pH of the water up into the alkaline range by adding phosphates and calcium to the water. These alone will typically only drive the pH to 7.6, which is suitable, but not ideal. Remember that Africans can adapt to a wide range of alkaline levels. If after using these measures, you still want to raise your pH, there are many commercial Cichlid buffers on the market. I recommend SeaChem’s Cichlid Salt. SeaChem and other companies also offer Cichlid Salts and Trace Elements, which try to simulate the exact salt and mineral conditions of the rift lakes, in addition to raising the pH. I would recommend using both the buffer and the salts because they really bring out the fishes’ colors.


Commercial buffers and salts can get quite expensive if you have a large tank. Instead of going with these, there are some homemade remedies that also work just fine. Common bicarbonate of soda is effective at raising the pH, not to mention it’s very inexpensive. Epsom salts (i.e., magnesium sulfate) can be used to harden the water in lieu of calcium. And then you could also add aquarium salt (i.e., non-iodized salt) to provide trace elements and potassium. For every 5 gallons of water, add 1-tablespoon Epsom slats, 1-teaspoon baking soda, and 1-teaspoon aquarium salt.

If your tap water has chloramines, you will need to use a conditioner to remove them. There are many out there that are good. I personally recommend AmQuel, which I buy by the gallon. But, that’s because I go through a lot of it as I do water changes on the scale of 100 gallons a week between my three tanks. A gallon lasts me a little over a year. And then, regardless of the condition of your water, I strongly recommend the use of NovAqua, which not only removes chlorine and toxic metals, but also forms a protective skin coating on and in the fishes’ skin as well as adding electrolytes needed for proper osmotic balance. Plus, it also helps stabilize the pH.

You should also be aware that ammonia can be much more stressful to your fishes at a high pH, such as African Cichlids require. At a pH of 8.0, for example, the ammonia in your aquarium is effectively ten times more toxic than at a pH of 7.0.


The optimal temperature is 74 – 78 F. I keep my tank at a constant 76 F. I never have to worry about my temperature fluctuating, be it winter or summer. This is in part due to the very large water to air ratio (which helps to cool it off), and more importantly, three submersible pumps (which heat the water slightly). I don’t use heaters on my fry or grow-out tank, and so the temp is naturally a little lower (74 F), however, I know of people who aim for temperatures of 80 F or even 82 F with their fry tanks. This brings me to my next point.

High temperatures will increase a fish’s metabolism, boost their immune response, as well as stimulate aggression. So, by raising the temperature to 80 F for a fry tank, one would speed up their metabolism, causing them to eat more and grow faster, but also require more water changes. Conversely, you could lower the temperature in your tank as a means of stemming aggression. This can be helpful if you have some really nasty fish on your hands (e.g., Melanochromis auratus, Pseudotropheus lombardoi “Kenyi”). This is due to the fact that the number one cause of aggression among Cichlids is food related. If they are not feeling a need to eat as often (because their metabolism has slowed), then they are less likely to be territorial and feisty.

Water Changes

No matter how good your filter is, you will eventually need to do water changes, although filters certainly help in keeping the water quality good for longer. Because African Cichlid setups usually lack plants, and are “overstocked” (more on this below), the water quality can quickly deteriorate. Experts suggest that 10-20% water changes every week are best. And then, if you go every other week, double that. I will admit, I am a little on the excessive side, but that’s because I have my tank jammed with fish, which I feed several times a day. With most setups, it is also important to vacuum the gravel. With my setup, I rigged it so that I almost NEVER need to vacuum the gravel.



There are so many different types of filters, not to mention all the variations on a filtration system one could devise with these. Because there are so many types, brands, and setups, I won’t discuss specifics here (for the most part).
If you have a small tank (i.e., 10-35 gallon), then a simple hang on the back filter will work just fine. You want the gallons per hour (gph) flow to be 4 – 6 times the volume of your tank. So if you have a 20-gallon tank, you will want a filter that cycles 80 – 120 gph. If you have a larger tank, you will need a more sophisticated filtering system, mostly because many “hang-on-the-back” filters aren’t adequate and can’t meet the gph requirements.

I have never used an undergravel filter, but almost everyone I have talked to has at some point switched from these to some other form of filtration. I am not saying you shouldn’t use one, but here are a couple of reasons why I would discourage you from using one: First, African Cichlids are diggers in the full sense of the word. Undergravel filters require that they be covered with your substrate (e.g., gravel) to be effective. Well, African Cichlids don’t cooperate. I have seen undergravel filters made 30% bare within a few hours. These tanks also had a good 4″ of substrate! Second, they require a lot of attention because they can get dirty very quickly. They pull the water down through the gravel, trapping any fecal wastes in the gravel; therefore, frequent water changes with mandatory vacuuming, are required. You don’t want to miss more than two weeks or you’ll find algae and fungus growing on your gravel. I have found that a system that works the opposite works well, with currents rising upward, and then water off the top gets filtered.

I recommend submersible pumps with sponges. These are good because they grab waste, provide an additional niche for beneficial denitrifying bacteria, and when mature, can become a backyard garden on which algae can grow and the Cichlids can harvest. Outside power filters with biological wheels and or sponges with carbon are also a good choice. Whatever you choose, it’s a good idea to clean out the impeller shaft, the impeller, and the sponge every few weeks. Otherwise, the flow rate will slow, sponges will get clogged, and your filter will stop doing its job.



There are several options. It seems that a very popular substrate is black gravel. I have never used it, and never intend to, but the reasons cited for using it purport to be that fishes’ colors show up better against dark gravel. A really cool look is crushed red granite gravel. Armke’s sells this stuff online.

I use crushed coral. I prefer it for several reasons. First and foremost, I like the way it looks. It’s very white and clean. I also like the occasional shells my Cichlids dig up. Second, the coral slowly dissolves and thereby increases the hardness of the water. My water is already hard (GH 14), but it helps to stabilize my pH and the hardness of the water. Hard water, if left alone and tested a week or so later, would show a decrease in its hardness. This is because minerals, which make the water hard, don’t stay suspended for very long. Unless you use buffer, have rocks in your tank, or use crushed coral, water changes are necessary not only to reduce nitrates, but also to restore the pH and hardness of your water. I have read, however, that crushed coral irritates their gills.

Dolomite (crushed limestone) is also used specifically as a buffer, but it does not dissolve as well as coral, and is not as desirable for that reason. It may also contain copper and other miscellaneous metals found in limestone. I use limestone for decoration, but use NovAqua and AmQuelto remove the copper and other toxic metals.

Many of the Shell-Dwelling Tanganyikans prefer sand. Do not use silica, but use crushed coral sand. You could also acquire regular sand from a spa retailer, as they use sand as a filtering substrate.


Decoration, after water conditions, is perhaps the second most important point to consider when setting up an African Rift Lake aquarium. You should decorate your tank with lots of rock to provide caves and hiding places for your Cichlids. Aggressive fish usually claim a territory. I have noticed that by providing them with lots of caves, dominant fish claim less territory. Egg layers absolutely need a cave to spawn and then to guard the eggs. Mouthbrooders tend to have less of a need for a permanent territory, but they still like to have a place (particularly, a flat rock) they can claim and on which to spawn.

There are lots of options here. This is where you really need to get creative. I use holey rock (a.k.a. limestone), which has dozens of tunnels through it. At night, my fish will sleep in these holes. I have seen many people use clay flowerpots; either turned on their side or turned upside down and given a hole. I don’t like the unnatural color or look these give, but do what you will like. Most often people will just stack limestone or some other rock with slate, creating layers with caves between.

Rocks I would recommend include limestone, slate, petrified wood, lava, granite, tufa, “pagoda,” and “lace rock.” Before you put these rocks in your tank, be sure to clean them with bleach. And then be sure as heck to rinse that bleach off before you put it in your tank with the fish. The sniff test works for me: if I can smell it, I know it’s still got bleach on it. I have purchased limestone that was purportedly “clean.” When I got to cleaning it, I found all kinds of dirt and roots in some of the holes of my limestone. I was glad that I took the extra precaution.

Because of the immense weight of your rocks, especially if they are stacked, you should consider how they are placed in your tank. This is especially important because your African Cichlids will dig and could undermine a rock formation that could come tumbling down. To prevent such a disaster, I glue rock formations together with silicone. Some people use egg crates on the very bottom of their tanks, before laying gravel. This prevents a rock from applying pressure to a single point on the glass, which could lead to crack.

I recently read about a clever trick, which would prevent any of the above catastrophes. This ingenious aquarist used pumice stone, which is an inert volcanic rock that floats. It is also soft and very porous. To prepare the pumice, he boils it in a large pot, holding them under with a heavy piece of granite or basalt. After 10 minutes or so, he removes the pumice and drops it into a bucket of cold water, and again weights it down. Once the pumice cools, it will now sink like a feather through the air. How does this prevent toppling or possible cracking? Well, with ever so light rocks, you can pile these up high in the tank without having to worry about their pressure on the glass. And their rough surface helps hold them together. They have two other advantages. Their porous interior provides yet another niche for denitrifying bacteria to live. You could easily drill pumice with a two-inch bit if you wanted to create tunnels or caves.

African Cichlids and live plants seem to be a “no-win” combination. Most plants have a tough time growing in very alkaline water because of the high levels of magnesium. Besides, Cichlids do a good job of trimming down plants. I use fake plants, tall and skinny ones. They provide yet another niche or territory for a fish to claim or hide in.

There are a few species of plants that they don’t seem to like and that are well adapted to their alkaline water. These include Java Fern, Vallisneria sp., and the Anubias family: A. barteri, A. congicus, A. gigante, A. gracilis, A. heterophylla, and A. nana. If you decide to take a stab at growing these plants in your tank, be aware that mbuna are terribly adept at digging up plants. For this reason, you should plant your plants in pots. Some plants can also take up too much swimming space for Haplochromis spp. and Mouthbrooders in general. I use fake plants, tall and skinny. They provide yet another niche or territory for a fish to claim or hide in.

I discourage the use of driftwood in any African Rift Lake setup. It can lower the pH of your water and stain the water yellow with tanic acid.

Because most African Cichlids are diggers and can rearrange your tank quicker than you can reset it, you should put at least 2 – 3″ of substrate in your tank.


I have another article dedicated just to this topic; therefore, I won’t say much about this here. Briefly put, however, Africans do extremely well if feed Spirulina flake, with an occasional treat of brine shrimp. Never feed them more than they can consume in 2, not 5 minutes! Cichlids are for the most part vegetarians, and have long intestines. Feeding them too much at once can cause problems, which often leads to the deadly “Malawi Bloat.”

Controlling Aggression

As I mentioned earlier in this lengthy article (hopefully you can remember that long ago) that the primary reason for Cichlid aggression is driven by food. You can control aggression by feeding your fish less, but more often. They are territorial because they want to stake out their own backyard garden from which to hunt and harvest. Conspecifics (i.e., similar looking fish) are seen as a threat (because if they are similar, they will compete for the same foods), and are chased off. Therefore, by having fish from a wide variety of species you can cut down on intra-species aggression. I have read and heard of several accounts of people keeping only Pseudotropheus demasoni. The result was that a colony soon turned into a lone, victorious male. Also, by giving your fish lots of room to swim, and lots of territories to claim and caves to hide in, you can reduce inter-species aggression.

Males are the more aggressive, and they tend to rough females not interested in mating. For this reason, almost everyone recommends keeping at least 2 females per male of a given species, that way his aggression and frustration are not received by just one female. Instead, it gets distributed.

Also, by “overstocking” your tank, you can distribute inter-species aggression. Not just one fish is a target of abuse, and aggressors tend to lose victims more easily when the tank is crowded. Just be sure that you “over filter” your aquarium if you are going to “overstock it.”

Just a brief note on a very rudimentary summary of aggressive and milder Africans. In my experience, I have found Pseudotropheus lombardoi “Kenyi” and Melanochromis auratus to be the most aggressive, followed in tow by the rest of the Pseudotropheus and Labeotropheus genuses. The milder Africans include the Labidochromis and Auloncara genuses. Victorian haps are quite mild, their aggression being more show than anything else.

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