General Guide to African Cichlids

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As a dedicated fish hobbyist, having an African cichlid tank is one of the most rewarding and challenging experiences.

It’s important to remember that just like any aquarium, setting up an African cichlid tank requires preparation and patience.

In this article, we’ll discuss everything you need to know before getting started.


An African Cichlid tank (or aquarium) is a type of freshwater aquarium setup specifically designed to house and care for African cichlids from Lake Tanganyika, Lake Malawi, and Lake Victoria.

It is characterized by a decorative substrate, high-quality filtration, a variety of vegetation, rocks, logs, and other decorations to create a specialized habitat for these tropical fish.

Properly-designed tanks can be aesthetically pleasing and provide an appropriate environment for the fish to thrive.

With the right balance of patience, knowledge, and effort, setting up your African cichlid tank can be an enjoyable and rewarding hobby that will bring you immense joy.

Natural Habitat of African Cichlids

Generally found in sub-Saharan Africa, these brightly colored and incredibly interesting creatures inhabit a wide range of aquatic habitats throughout this region.

Many species live in shallow waters near the shoreline.

In contrast, others prefer to take up residence in deeper areas of lakes and rivers.

Most African cichlids prefer a warm pH close to neutral, with plant life and driftwood branches providing cover and shelter among natural river vegetation.

Due to their ability to adapt quickly to changing conditions, they often occupy large bodies of water and smaller, more isolated water holes.

Tank Size

African cichlids are a stunning species of freshwater fish that are worth dedicating a species tank to.

However, successfully keeping African cichlids requires careful consideration of their specific environmental needs and the tank size needed to house them.

The minimum recommended tank size for hosting African cichlids is 55 gallons.

This allows enough space for a quality filtration system and a variety of hiding places to create an ideal environment where they can thrive.

Also, this larger tank helps minimize tensions among the different species that can be caused by limited space in the aquarium.

In addition, if you add quite a few varieties of cichlids, you may need to upgrade your tank size to around 75-90 gallons or larger.

Most importantly, remember that adequate filtration and the right water parameters are critical when establishing and maintaining healthy environmental conditions in any fish tank setup.

African Cichlid Tank

Water Requirements

Generally, African cichlids need water parameters that are similar to their wild native habitats.

This includes a pH of 7-8.5, alkalinity of 4-14 dKH, and temperatures between 74-82°F.

Additionally, African cichlids also prefer hard water over soft water.

Understanding what kind of water quality and chemistry best suits your particular species is essential to keeping them healthy.

Having regular tests done to monitor these variables is important so that you can intervene before any issues arise.

Tank Setup

Creating a tank setup for African cichlids can be both fun and challenging.

First, you’ll need to consider the type of aquarium size and filtration that best suits your needs and those of your cichlids.

The fish should have plenty of room to swim freely and appropriate hiding spots, so select an aquarium size accordingly.

It’s also important to incorporate rocks, caves, plants, driftwood, and other decor items tailored specifically toward African cichlids.

Depending on the variety of fish you decide on, you may even need substrates that combine sand and gravel to naturally mimic the river bed.

With careful consideration in setting up the right environment for their unique needs, your cichlid tank can flourish with these beautiful species!

Types of African Cichlids

There are over 2000 species in this family, most of which can be found in the Rift Valley Lakes, such as Lake Malawi, Lake Tanganyika, and Lake Victoria.

Many African cichlids have developed unique adaptations that allow them to survive and thrive in their natural habitats.

Here are some of the most common types of African cichlids:

  • Mbuna: This is one of the most popular types of African cichlid, and they come from Lake Malawi. Mbuna’s are known for their bold colors, aggressive behavior, and hardy nature.
  • Tanganyikan: This type of African cichlid is native to Lake Tanganyika and has a more peaceful temperament than the Mbuna. These fish are typically brown, grey, or black, with some having bright yellow stripes or spots.
  • Victorian: Victorian cichlids are found in Lake Victoria and are known for their bright yellow and blue colors. These fish tend to be more peaceful than Mbuna, but they still require plenty of space to swim as they can grow up to 15 inches long.
  • Peacock: Peacock cichlids come from Lake Malawi and have become immensely popular among aquarium hobbyists. These fish have striking colors and patterns, making them a favorite among many aquarists.

No matter which type of African cichlid you choose, it’s important to research the fish before purchasing them, so you know what kind of environment they require.

African cichlid care

Number of African Cichlids In a Tank

African cichlids thrive in communities with other African cichlids, but they should be watched for signs of aggression and taken out if necessary.

If you look at a typical African cichlid tank then you will notice that in almost every case, they appear to be overstocked.

For any other family of fish, an overstocked tank is a big no-no but for this genus it is an absolute must.

Overstocking avoids aggression and it stops a single fish from being bullied on.

But that does mean that you can just add as many as you want because there is a fine line between just enough and too many.

Here is a general outline but a lot depends on the final adult size of your fish:

  • 55 gallon African cichlid tank: 15 Large – 32 Small African cichlids. 
  • 75 gallon African cichlid tank: 15 Large – 42 Small African cichlids. 
  • 125 gallon African cichlid tank: 40 – 72 African cichlids. 

Here is a guideline according to specific types of African cichlids:

How many cichlids in a 55 gallon tank

  • 15 – 20 Peacocks and Haps 
  • 26 – 32 Mbunas 
  • 5 – 15 Haps 

How many cichlids in a 75 gallon tank

  • 25 – 30 Peacocks and Haps 
  • 35 – 42 Mbunas 
  • 15 – 25 Haps 

How many cichlids in a 125 gallon tank

  • 50 – 60 Peacocks and Haps
  • 60 – 72 Mbunas 
  • 40 – 55 Haps 

Mixing of Malawi and Mbuna cichlids

Malawi and Mbuna cichlids are both African, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can be mixed in the same aquarium.

Mixing two different ecoregions of African Cichlids is not recommended, as most species originate from endemic lakes and often have vastly different temperatures, pH, and hardiness requirements.

Mbuna cichlids are omnivores and tend to prefer higher temperatures than Malawi cichlids which are mostly herbivorous and require cooler temperatures.

So, although mixing Malawai and Mbuna cichlids are possible if done carefully, those new to keeping African cichlid aquariums should start with one or the other rather than attempt to do both.

Tank Mates

African Cichlids brighten up any aquarium with their vibrant colors and dynamic personalities.

Because of their aggressive nature, it’s essential to carefully select tank mates for African Cichlids with similar needs and characteristics.

Ideally, the ideal tank mate should be peaceful, non-aggressive, and be able to handle the same water parameters that African cichlids need.

Additionally, they should be similar in size, as larger fish are more likely to prey on smaller tank mates and disrupt the natural balance of your aquarium.

Large bottom dwellers and fast swimming fish would be ideal.

Fish species that can live with African cichlids are plecos, bushfish, red tail sharks, giant danios, bucktooth tetras, rainbowfish, large catfish, Lake Malawi Synodontis and larger algae eaters. 

When selecting your tank mates, make sure that you take into consideration the temperament of both fish so that they can coexist peacefully in one environmental space.

With careful selection, you’ll create an interesting aquarium teeming with activity!


Setting up an African cichlid tank can be incredibly rewarding.

These fish are colorful and full of personality, making them a joy to watch.

With the proper setup and care, your African cichlid tank will provide you with years of enjoyment.


Are African cichlids for beginners?

Yes, they are good beginner fish as long as proper water maintenance is always done.

Are African cichlids easy to keep?

Yes, they are easy to keep and are classifies as hardy.

Can I keep an African cichlid in a 10 gallon tank?

You can keep very small African cichlid shell dwellers in this size tank as they stay between 1 to 2 inches long.

Photo of author


Irma Bense is the founder of She has over 42 years of experience in keeping fish.She has kept both freshwater and saltwater fish through the years.She has extensive knowledge in breeding numerous species of fish from Show Guppies, Cory Catfish, German Blue Rams to Apistogrammas.You can learn more about Irma on the 'About' page.

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