Above – Fish researcher Muffadal Alibhai with a Sharptooth Catfish – Clarias geriepinus – caught in upper Tana River, central Kenya
All images – copyright Muffadal Alibhai
There are over 200 known species of indigenous freshwater fish in Kenya, 15 endemic to Kenya but some may become extinct without research or photographic record of them
Published – The East African Nation August 6-12 2022
When Muffadal S. Alibhai, a Kenyan fish conservationist and researcher asks the audience to name five freshwater fish in Kenya, nobody can answer beyond the two or three most popular ones that are on the menu – tilapia, Nile perch, trout. But the issue with trout is that it’s not Kenyan having been introduced in the country by Lord Grogan of the Cape-to-Cairo famous walk for the love of a woman. In 1906, he stocked the trout in Nairobi’s Chiromo River and those on the massifs of the Aberdares and Mt Kenya. The fish thrived, giving rise to the trout fish industry.
Today, Chiromo – the Malawian name that Grogan bequeathed on his newly acquired land that today is in heart of Nairobi city where the University of Nairobi Chiromo campus is – is a sad story of most of Kenya’s rivers – dirty, polluted, an open flowing sewage that stinks and minus a single fish.
Yet Alibhai who grew up in Nairobi started fishing before he could walk recalls swimming and fishing in the city’s rivers as a child. “Today, no one would allow their children to even put a finger in any of these rivers,” says the passionate fish man giving a riveting expose of Kenya’s freshwater fish. “The state of our rivers is very bad.”
That Kenya has almost 200 known species of indigenous freshwater fish surprises all. Of these, 15 are endemic and one extinct. “There may be others that became extinct without a single photo of them because there is so little research and funding. Yet fish are the epitome of a healthy ecosystem.”
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that fish can only survive in clean water. “They are bio-indicators of the state of the river,” he continues. It’s the same water we and all life on earth are dependent on – to drink, bathe, and water our fields of food.
Yet laments Alibhai funding goes to ‘sexier’ causes – to save the elephants, rhinos and lions. And in the donor dictionary, the funding has to show how the community will benefit. “The community has to drink water!” he exclaims.
Alibhai names spots where he used to fish with abundance besides Nairobi. “Fourteen Falls in Oldonyo Sabuk fifty kilometres from Nairobi used to be full of fish. You just had to stand under the waterfalls with your fish net for the fish to fall in. It was a true spectacle of nature. But today it froths with toxic foam.” The foam is a result of an overload of phosphorous and other chemicals found in washing detergents and agricultural-industrial runoff which when untreated in septic tanks enters the waterways loaded with toxic waste.
“I follow rivers from the source, through our cities and urban areas where they are open sewers which then flow through our national parks and farms where farmers water their crops with the same water,” states Muffadal. “We end up eating all this – in other words our own shit.”
A shift in policy is needed for the government to protect these bio-indicators that tell the state of our environment. Ironically, in the present national elections not a single presidential aspirant talked about the natural environment.
The fish researcher encourage everyone to write to their local government representatives to rescue our rivers. There’s need for mega-public awareness that freshwater fish are also threatened by infrasturture, dams, unplanned settlements and pure ignorance. Creating protected areas for fish is not a solution either because freshwater fish need flowing water, the same water that passes through urban towns where it turns into sludge.
“We may be losing species of fish even before they are documented,” laments Muffadal. “Yet protecting them is good for fish tourism and the economy.”
In the bigger picture, when the last freshwater fish perishes in our rivers it will be the end of life.
Some of Kenya’s Spectacular Species of Fish
The unusual fish with a long snout photographed in Cheploch Gorge. In the same family, Bernhard’s elephant-snout fish is only found in the Athi-Galana-Sabaki River and threatened by fishing.
With giraffe-like pattern, its popular in aquariums and found in freshwater lakes and rivers.
Patterned like a leopard print, its found in Kenya and Tanzania.
One of the oldest-known creatures in the world from the age of the dinosaur, its found in Lake Turkana.
A thousand times more toxic than cyanide and with human-like teeth, it’s the only species of the puffer eel in Kenya.
Labeo in Mzima Springs
Although a popular tourist spot in Tsavo West National Park, the beautiful blue iridescent fish has only recently been described scientifically.
“It’s like a silver torpedo,” describes Muffadal showing a slide from Kora National Park where the Tana, Kenya’s longest river flows on its way to the Indian Ocean. “There are few people in Kora yet the waters are turning dark and the fish disappearing.
Native to Somalia and Kenya’s Ewaso River little is known about this river-bottom dweller.
From on Mount Kenya, it survives in crystal clear flowing mountain water living on water insects.
A remnant of the Nile before it diverted its flow from Lake Turkana to Lake Victora, it’s a slow breeder. “Lake Turkana has an incredible diversity of fish but overfishing with nets for tilapia threatens it,”says Muffadali.