If I had 50 cents for every time I have been asked this question, or come across it in Cichlid Forums, I would have a nice little nest egg by now!
Many aquarists fail to breed Cichlids successfully, despite setting up dedicated breeding tanks, selecting pairs carefully and keeping water conditions correct and stable, despite water changes and special feeding regimen. Yet, as many aquarists do almost none of the above and have no problems breeding their cichlids at all. They simply keep their Cichlids in their normal display tanks, make sure the water conditions are perfect and let nature takes it course. And strangely, these aquarists are sometimes trying to devise ways with which to stop their Cichlids breeding so much!
So, what is the difference between these two groups? What is the Secret?
THE FIRST SECRET
There is indeed a secret. It is so simple, I am sure it will almost floor you, but if you think it through, it does make complete sense. The answer, in short, is this: Habitat! Create a natural habitat for your fish! Mimic their natural habitat! Do so even in your dedicated breeding tank!
I use all those exclamation marks to emphasise my belief: If everything in the tank is as natural as possible for a captive habitat, the fish in turn will do exactly what is natural for them. They will pair off naturally and when ready, they will breed. They will do so, because in a nature-mimicking tank the fish are able to relax, as they feel safe and calm in an environment that is literally imprinted in their genes.
This means I am right in the face of another group of fish-keepers!
To all you bare-base tank enthusiasts out there, I understand where you are coming from, but I will never agree with you, except for making one single concession: A bare-base tank is necessary for medicating sick fish, or for a medicated quarantine process. But, as an aquarium? Never! Because if this is the set-up of your choice, you are running your bare-base tanks for your own convenience, and certainly not for the well-being of your fish!
Believe me, it is no more difficult to clean and siphon a properly set-up, well-kept, nature-mimicking aquarium than a bare-base tank! It all boils down just to a little bit of know-how, a little bit of discipline and regular maintenance.
We all know (or should by now know) that African Rift Lake cichlids require a lot of caves, retreats and hiding spots, that the best substrate for their tanks is well washed sand, and that the ratio of males to females is of paramount importance.
THE SECOND SECRET
But there is one further secret to creating a proper habitat: The provision of caves that are never, ever moved, or re-arranged by you, and can never be toppled or under-dug by any of the the tank inhabitants. Trivial though this little detail may seem to us, that sense of permanence and security created by an immoveable cave is of paramount importance to a Cichlid seeking to claim a personal territory in which to live and thrive.
Yet, consider how you have chosen a home to attain that same semblance of permanence and privacy, how you have made sure your ‘back is covered’, and how you have put security measures into place to protect yourself and your family. Seeking safe shelter is a basic instinct for all living beings. Why should it be difficult to understand that your fish need the same?
Permanent caves are easily made from stones ‘glued’ together with aquarium silicone, taking care to leave only one entry point. Alternately, small clay pots, (extremely ugly in a tank on their own), can be similarly camouflaged with stones and built or ‘glued’ into your rock structure, ensuring that they also offer a reasonable ‘view’, so that the fish, while inside their caves, do not have to strain to find out what is going on in their habitat. Make sure that you never move, open or disturb these ‘caves’. They need to imbue a sense of security and permanence in the eyes of the fish.
THE THIRD SECRET
The third secret lies in how you feed your Cichlids. We all know by now that we need to feed quality foods if we want our fish to thrive and breed. However, it may surprise you to hear that feeding frequency often plays a very big role in successful spawning and breeding. Over-fed fish seldom breed. The only remedy is to reduce the amount you feed in order to get your fish into condition. If your mature adults still show no interest in spawning, reduce the frequency of feeding to just once a day, but stick to quality foods and up proteins without increasing the amount you feed. (Think Spirulina!) Then do a small water change. You should soon see a dramatic increase in the frequency of spawning, and the broods will in all likelihood be larger than expected. The reason for this turnaround is that fish that are fed less are more active, as well as more actively engaged.
A perfect by-product of this kind of feeding regime is that your fish are less susceptible to disease — proving the old adage: ‘A hungry fish is a HEALTHY fish’.
I wish you success!