One man mission to save Kenya's freshwater fish

Monday August 08 2022

Fish researcher Muffadal Alibhai with a Sharptooth Catfish or Clarias Geriepinus caught in upper Tana River, Central Kenya. PHOTO | POOL


When Muffadal S. Alibhai, a fish conservationist and researcher, asked the audience at a recent event in Nairobi to name five freshwater fish in Kenya, nobody could name more than the three common on menus in the country — tilapia, catfish and trout.

However, trout is not native to Kenya, having been introduced here by Lord Grogan. In 1906, he stocked trout in the Nairobi River at Chiromo and in the rivers, streams and lakes around the Aberdares and Mount Kenya. A century later, the fish is thriving.

The Nairobi River once had crystal-clear waters teeming with fish. Over the years, it got dirty and polluted, and all fish disappeared. Recent clean-up efforts have seen the river, at least the parts in the heart of the city’s leafy suburbs, cleaner but still polluted.

Alibhai, who grew up in Nairobi, started fishing at a young age, and he recalls swimming and fishing in the city’s rivers as a child. "Today, no one would allow their children to even dip a finger in any of these rivers," says the fish man.

He says Kenya has over 200 known species of indigenous freshwater fish, of which around 15 are endemic to Kenya. "There may be others that became extinct without a photographic record of them because there is little research and funding in fish, yet they are the bio-indicators of the state of water bodies, " he adds.

Alibhai laments that "we are losing species of fish even before they are documented." These include:



This unusual fish with a snout was photographed in Cheploch Gorge in the Rift Valley. It is in the same family as the Athi Elephant Snout, which is endemic to Athi River and on the edge of extinction due to pollution.

Upside-down catfish

This fish is unique to Kenya, Tanzania and possibly Somalia. It is in the species of what is known as upside-down catfish often found upside down under rocks. They adapted this pose to take in concentrated oxygen on the surface of the water and feed on insects and larvae floating on the water surface. Unfortunately, they are increasingly turning upside-down dead.

Africana Arowana

The only species of its kind surviving in Kenya, it is found exclusively in Lake Turkana. It is believed to have survived the age of the dinosaurs but is now being wiped out by net fishing.

Nile Pufferfish

This species is one thousand times more toxic than cyanide. It has human-like teeth and puffs up like a ball when threatened. It’s an incredibly unique species that is also one of the most poisonous vertebrates on earth.

Whitehead catfish

Known as the "silver torpedo," it is found in the upper Tana River, Kenya’s longest river draining into the Indian Ocean. The fish is nevertheless disappearing.

African longfin eel

"We have eels in Nairobi that have travelled thousands of kilometres from the Indian Ocean," says Alibhai of the African Longfin Eel.