Are African Cichlids Hard to Keep?

African cichlids rank as some of the hottest tank fish you can purchase today. Part of that is due to the fish’s exclusive vibe. African cichlids can only be found in Africa and only in 3 major lakes – Victoria, Tanganyika, and Malawi.

These 3 groups of cichlids each come with unique features and personality traits, requiring different approaches as a result.

Here are some general cichlid facts to consider about these fish:

Tanganyika Cichlids

  • Moderate to highly aggressive, unfit for community tanks
  • Approximately 250 species of cichlids fall into this category
  • Can grow up to 12 inches, depending on the species
  • Between species like Tropheus, Cyprichromis, Shell-Dwellers, and Neolamprologus brichardi, this species showcases an amazing diversity of colors, sizes, and patterns

Victoria Cichlids

  • Moderately aggressive compared to cichlids coming from different areas
  • They can coexist with different cichlid species, primarily Malawi-born
  • They display an astounding variety of bright colors, mostly in the range of red, orange, yellow, and even rainbow
  • Victoria cichlid males are more tolerant of other males of the same species

Malawi Cichlids

  • Malawi cichlids separate into 2 different groups, Mbuna and Aulonocara
  • Mbuna cichlids are rock dwellers, growing around 4 to 6 inches, and they are extremely aggressive and territorial
  • Alonocara cichlids are some of the most peaceful fish in the cichlid family
  • Overstocking Malawi cichlids will reduce their aggression

Now that you got the basics let’s assess how difficult it is to house and grow these cichlids.

Are African Cichlids Good for Beginners?

No, they are not. I would say that not even the more peaceful species like Victoria-born cichlids are fit for beginners. African cichlids tend to be a lot more difficult to manage in the long run for a variety of reasons. Allow me to highlight the most relevant ones:

Unhinged Aggression

African cichlids are aggressive by nature. They will fight for multiple reasons, including territory, females, food, hierarchy, and even on a whim, based on bullying instincts. The dominant male will attack lower-ranked males and females for roaming its territory.

Higher-ranked females will attack lower-ranked ones. Males will harass females during and after the mating phase. And the list goes on.

Sure, you can try to mitigate their aggression by providing their tank with more hiding spots, overstocking them, or removing the aggressors. But these strategies will only offer either temporary or mild relief.

Not to mention, while overstocking African cichlids will diminish their aggression, it will also cause a variety of additional issues. One of them is the excess fish poop that will poison the water and boost ammonia levels.

Rather Sensitive Nature

You will see African cichlids ranking as hardy and resilient fish, but that’s only half the truth. The other half says that these cichlids are rather sensitive to sudden, massive, or frequent environmental fluctuations. African cichlids won’t accept any ammonia or nitrite content in their water and don’t do well in habitats with fluctuating temperatures.

Temperature shifts can cause your cichlids discomfort, lower their immune system, and even increase their aggression levels. Long-term, it will cause health issues like diseases, parasites, and bacterial infections.

Extremely Messy Fish

African cichlids eat a lot, produce impressive amounts of poop, dig into the substrate, and obliterate plants, provided you are reckless enough to add any to their tank. All these factors paint African cichlids as messy fish, capable of creating a lot of chaos in their environment.

The conclusion is simple. You will have to perform strict regular tank maintenance, clean the aquarium, remove fish waste and food residues, and change the water frequently. More frequently than most fish you’ve dealt with, I would say.

Few people are open to such a degree of involvement, and it’s understandable. It’s one of the main reasons African cichlids are only recommended to more experienced aquarists.

Community Incompatibility

African cichlids are generally unfit for community tanks. Some species are, but they only accept specific fish species, and even those aren’t 100% sure. So, pairing them even with recommended fish species can quickly devolve into tragedy, as cichlids decide to eliminate the intruders.

It may also happen the other way around, for cichlids to be on the receiving end. Rock-dwelling species are rather timid and will experience stress when attacked. Either way, community tanks, including African cichlids, require careful planning and constant monitoring, which may not sit well with casual or novice aquarists.

Overall, I would argue that African cichlids, in their entirety, are not fit for novice aquarists. Best-case scenario, you can go for smaller and more peaceful species that could be more suited for community tanks. Or, on the contrary, you can focus on larger cichlids and only keep a handful to make it easier to care for them.

Either way, know that you’re in for a wild ride.

What is the Best Beginner African Cichlid?

If you’ve decided you can’t live anymore without your own personal cichlid tank, I present you with a somewhat safer option. The Yellow Lab cichlid is probably the best option for a novice aquarist for a variety of reasons, primarily its friendlier and less aggressive attitude.

Here are some core facts about the Yellow Lab to help you decide whether you can handle it:

  • It prefers clean waters – The Yellow Lab requires bi-weekly water changes of 10-20%, especially if you have several of them in the tank. This will remove excess ammonia and nitrites, keeping the environment healthier and more balanced.
  • Less aggressive – This cichlid’s more easy-going attitude make it fit for decent community tank options. That being said, it will make good tank mates with fish species like plecos, Tiger Oscar, and other African cichlids.
  • Color-based aggression – Yellow Labs appear to display increased aggression towards other fish species that share their colors and even body shape. So, if you’re pairing them with other cichlids, make sure they don’t look too much like your Yellow Labs.

Aside from these facts, the Yellow Lab displays manageable water requirements, like 72 to 82 F temperature, 10-20 dGH for water hardness, and 7.2-8.8 water pH. The temperature especially allows for some wiggle room since Yellow Labs tend to be more resilient than many other cichlid species.

Lighting-wise, you don’t need much. Yellow Labs prefer rocky environments and spend most of their lives around rock formations which don’t get much lighting in the wild. So, environmental light should suffice for your Yellow Labs.

Best Tank Size for Keeping African Cichlids

I would say there is no ideal tank size for African cichlids. Generally speaking, I recommend a 55-gallon tank for optimal conditions. This is enough to accommodate most African cichlids, along with a variety of tank decorations and equipment. At a minimum, prepare mentally for a 30-gallon aquarium, no matter the type of African cichlids you’re getting. This would be the absolute minimum in terms of size for several reasons:

  • African cichlids are extremely territorial – This means that they need more space than other fish species. This will allow them to remain calmer since more space equals more hiding spots and more territory to cover.
  • Consider overstocking – As you know by now, African cichlids thrive when overstocked, within certain limits, of course. What bothers them isn’t the overstocking aspect but the lack of adequate space. So long as the aquarium is large enough, overcrowding the cichlids won’t bother them. It will even calm down their aggressive tendencies, making them more peaceful overall. Obviously, ‘peaceful’ isn’t really the word here, but you know what I mean.
  • Consider the environmental setup – African cichlids are mostly rock dwellers, so you need to provide them with a varied rocky setup. In essence, more than 50% of the tank’s volume will consist of rocks, so you should also take this aspect into account.

Fortunately, some African cichlid species do better in 30-gallon tanks than others, like those belonging to the Neolamprologus genus. These are smaller cichlids, only growing up to 2-2.5 inches, and won’t mind the smaller space.

Beginner Tips for Keeping African Cichlids

If you’ve decided to invest in African cichlids, despite lacking the necessary experience and expertise, allow me to lend a hand. Here are some useful, fast tips regarding African cichlid care and maintenance:

  • Don’t mix continents – Only mix African cichlids with other African cichlids, even if they belong to different species. Mixing African cichlids with any other cichlids, American or European, is asking for trouble. African cichlids will become extremely violent when in the presence of other foreign species, leading to an all-out war soon.
  • Control the number of males – This aspect stands for most tank fish. All male fish are natively prone towards territoriality and competition, but few reach the intensity of the African cichlids. Male African cichlids will tweak their aggression levels to new heights, with their interactions often degenerating into deadly violence. You shouldn’t keep more than 1 male cichlid per tank, especially if we’re talking about large and violent species like the Bumblebee, Auratus, and others.
  • Pristine water conditions – African cichlids require stable and optimal water conditions, with a few fluctuations as possible. They are extremely sensitive to chemicals like ammonia and nitrites and don’t tolerate temperature instability too well. Consider investing in a reliable filtering system and rely on a heater to keep the environmental temperature stable. Your African cichlids may also require weekly or bi-weekly water changes, no more than 15% at a time.
  • Overstocking sometimes helps – Most African cichlids like to live in larger groups, despite not being schooling fish. They won’t even mind overcrowding them a bit. Doing so mitigates their aggressive tendencies, keeping the population calmer overall. The problem is that overcrowding cichlids will result in more fish waste, increasing the need for more frequent tank maintenance.
  • Prepare yourself for tank cleaning – Unfortunately, African cichlids, and cichlids in general, fall into the ‘messy fish’ category. They will produce a lot more poop than you might be used to. Adopting a strict tank cleaning schedule is necessary to prevent the cichlids’ environment from becoming unstable and even dangerous.
  • Approach their diet carefully – One of the African cichlid’s primary weaknesses is its digestive system. African cichlids are more sensitive in this area and require optimal diets to prevent digestive issues. Do not overfeed your cichlids! Only feed them once or twice daily and only enough food for them to consume in 2 minutes or less. Food diversity is the word combination of the day. Most African cichlids are omnivorous, so you should provide them with nutritious meals with lower amounts of protein and richer in fiber to aid in digestion.

I know this may seem like much, but a lot of these aspects also apply to a variety of other fish species. Others, as you can see, are more exclusive to African cichlids, which is why they don’t make for easy fish for novice aquarists.


African cichlids are generally moderate-to-difficult. They are harder to keep for novice fish lovers but can become a breeze for experienced aquarists. If you’ve decided to invest in African cichlids, focus on smaller, less aggressive species.

You can move onto larger and more aggressive options once you’ve got the basics and can handle more demanding fish.

To end on a high note, African cichlids are extremely rewarding fish once you get accustomed with their personalities and environmental requirements.

avatar Noah
I’m Noah, chief editor at VIVO Pets and the proud owner of a playful, energetic husky (Max). I’ve been a volunteer at Rex Animal Rescue for over 2 years. I love learning and writing about different animals that can be kept as pets. read more...

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