The parosphromenus project — Peter Finke, nov. 2018

The Parosphromenus Project

The founder of the project tells how it came to, what it means and why its suc­cess is not cer­tain
By Peter L. W. Finke

Trans­lated by Hein­rich Bayer, Ger­many

The first and most famous licorice gourami, Parosphromenus deiss­neri, which was con­sid­ered extinct in 2016, has been redis­cov­ered by the Chi­nese biol­o­gist Went­ian Shi in a small, pre­vi­ously unknown pop­u­la­tion. He has described the story of this painstak­ing redis­cov­ery with many pho­tos for the first time on the home­page of the Parosphromenus Project (www​.parosphromenus​-project​.org). He exclu­sively wrote a short ver­sion for our mag­a­zine. On this occa­sion we have the founder of the project, Prof. Dr. med. Peter Finke (Ger­many), who man­ages it to this day, asked to tell how this unusual project came about, what its struc­ture is and how he assesses its future.

For Went­ian Shi

  1. Pri­vate and pro­fes­sional history

The Parosphromenus project has a long his­tory. I’ve always been inter­ested in nature, espe­cially birds, amphib­ians and fish, but I did not con­sciously study biol­ogy. The rea­son was that later, other, more abstract, with­out for­mal study hardly self-​taught cop­ing inter­ests were added (phi­los­o­phy, lan­guages, cul­ture). I there­fore became a pro­fes­sional sci­en­tist and cul­ture researcher with a chair in phi­los­o­phy of sci­ence, but all my life I also worked as a com­mit­ted ama­teur in sev­eral fields (espe­cially con­tem­po­rary his­tory, nature con­ser­va­tion, eco­nomic the­ory and aquar­is­tics) on a vol­un­tary basis.

My pri­vate inter­est in birds and fish con­tin­ued along­side my pro­fes­sional career; I had e.g. always aquar­i­ums with labyrinth fish. I was par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nated by the croak­ing gouramis of the genus Tri­chop­sis; After get­ting to know him early on, I always hung on the lips of Diet­rich Schaller, who had brought from his child­hood in Thai­land an incred­i­ble local knowl­edge and exper­tise. As a stu­dent, I was already a mem­ber of the “Fed­er­a­tion for Bird Pro­tec­tion” (now NABU) and got to know eco­log­i­cal think­ing and nature con­ser­va­tion. As a stu­dent, I became the sixth mem­ber of the Ger­man Labyrinth Fish Asso­ci­a­tion IGL, whose intended, if only insuf­fi­ciently real­ized inter­na­tion­al­ity I liked, and soon I held there lec­tures on aquar­is­tics and nature con­ser­va­tion, which was then still unusual.

In the mid­dle of the sev­en­ties I met the sound engi­neer Horst Linke in Berlin and in Munich the doc­tor Dr. med. Wal­ter Foer­sch. The for­mer gave me six won­der­ful Tri­chop­sis schal­leri, and the lat­ter became the founder of seri­ous ama­teur research on licorice guramis. From him I received the first fish of the genus Parosphromenus. We were enthu­si­as­tic about these fish, all of which were mis­taken for P. deiss­neri (for a long time almost the only known species in the genus). Foer­sch then went with sev­eral other pio­neers such as Linke and Schaller to South­east Asia, dis­cov­ered new Parosphromenus and Betta species. The destruc­tion of their habi­tats in South­east Asia had already begun, but at that time this was not a big topic. But I never for­got a sen­tence that Foer­sch said to me at the time: These fish are so inter­est­ing that one has to devote an own project to them. Only more than three decades later it came to this. But only if you know this sen­tence, you under­stand why it’s not about a new club or another insti­tu­tion, but about a project, or a process.

Because first of all, my job demanded with power a lot of time; I was awarded a doc­tor­ate and habil­i­ta­tion, Pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy of Sci­ence, Dean of my fac­ulty and fully involved in the aca­d­e­mic struc­tures. In the nineties I was very happy when I got some new species for me, P. palu­di­cola, P. fil­a­men­to­sus and P. nagyi, but for the time being there was nei­ther space nor time. I met amongst oth­ers with Bernd Bus­sler, Gün­ter Kopic, Nor­bert Neuge­bauer and finally Mar­tin Hall­mann espe­cially ded­i­cated and capa­ble con­nois­seurs and breed­ers of these fish.

  1. Deci­sive events

In 1995, I was then won by Amer­i­can and Euro­pean col­leagues to par­tic­i­pate in a major inter­na­tional research project involv­ing ten years up to 2005, involv­ing uni­ver­si­ties from four coun­tries (USA, Japan, Eng­land and Ger­many). The goal was to find Indi­ca­tors of Cul­tural Change by Econ­o­miza­tion and Glob­al­iza­tion (ICC, the title of the project). My job at the ICC was to describe how the gen­eral economi­sa­tion of thought and action and the increas­ingly con­spic­u­ous glob­al­iza­tion at the end of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury specif­i­cally changed sci­ence. I have done this in the fol­low­ing years and some pub­li­ca­tions and books orig­i­nated. Fish and aquar­is­tics ini­tially played no role in this research.

But around the turn of the mil­len­nium, three impor­tant things hap­pened: 1. The Inter­net grew in a few years, ini­tially for sci­en­tists, but much more for the econ­omy, to an all-​changing size. This also changed my work and my life. 2. News from South­east Asia has become more dra­matic as the jun­gle has been cut down faster and more ruth­lessly to cre­ate farm­land. How­ever, the atten­tion of inter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion was lim­ited (as is still the case today) exclu­sively to the fate of the orang­utan. Finally — and that was the key — 3. an Amer­i­can col­league from the ICC project, who knew about my aquar­ius hobby, asked me a very impor­tant ques­tion. It read: Are not hob­bies also part of the cul­ture? This we have ignored so far. Did not you say that you are an aquar­ist? How did econ­o­miza­tion and glob­al­iza­tion actu­ally affect the aquar­ium hobby?

That was the turn. I real­ized that my job was to build some­thing new using the Inter­net: a global net­work against the ever-​increasing com­mer­cial­iza­tion of aquar­is­tics and specif­i­cally against the destruc­tion of bio­di­ver­sity in Malaysia and Indone­sia, where more and more wet and humid low­lands and jun­gle bogs were laid dry, the main habi­tats of the licorice guramis, so that there huge agrar­ian fac­to­ries, namely plan­ta­tions for oil palms could arise. Even with­out ask­ing the many dif­fer­ent rain­for­est peo­ples, their home­land was cut down over their heads. It sud­denly became clear to me what it was that I had to real­ize if I wanted to change the aquar­is­tics. The motto was: Out of the liv­ing room, into the real world behind the beau­ti­ful aquar­i­ums, ie, where the great dying takes place. Before the Inter­net age, this had been impos­si­ble. Only the inter­net made the real­iza­tion of the new vision possible.

  1. The struc­ture of the Parosphromenus Project

The begin­ning was still insuf­fi­cient. Already in 1982, the Ger­man Aquar­ium Asso­ci­a­tion VDA had invited me to give a lec­ture at its main con­fer­ence. I chose the title “For a dif­fer­ent aquar­ium” and reached that all those respon­si­ble had to lis­ten to a very crit­i­cal analy­sis of the sit­u­a­tion. The result was that I was hence­forth con­sid­ered per­sona non grata. There­fore I built a licorice gourami work­ing group together with Mar­tin Hall­mann in the con­text of the IGL, whose vice pres­i­dent I was mean­while (later I also became pres­i­dent for a short time), were soon all impor­tant experts on this mat­ter were mem­bers . After all, here the basics of the book were laid, which we pub­lished both years later as the only mono­graph on the licorice gouramis (Peter Finke /​Mar­tin Hall­mann: Pracht­gu­ramis, jew­els of the jun­gle in nature and in the aquar­ium.) Rodgau: Aqua­log pub­lish­ing house 2013). But the “inter­na­tion­al­ity” of this asso­ci­a­tion was com­pletely inad­e­quate, they spoke only Ger­man and mis­judged the real sit­u­a­tion to be the cen­ter of the labyrinth fish world. In addi­tion, there were quar­rel­some trou­ble­mak­ers who were excluded years later by Hall­mann from the Asso­ci­a­tion. My efforts for a crit­i­cal aquar­ium hobby direct­ing the com­mer­cial­iza­tion were boy­cotted by them and I left the IGL. Horst Linke and oth­ers left before me. (From today’s point of view, a lot has got­ten bet­ter there.) This is mainly a merit of the present Pres­i­dent Mar­tin Hall­mann). Luck­ily in Ger­many there was a sec­ond labyrinth fish­ery asso­ci­a­tion, the EAC /​AKL, where many of the dis­ap­pointed ones fled.

How­ever, towards the end of my career, I still had to wage a per­sonal, time-​consuming fight against pol­i­tics, which demanded that sci­en­tists in Europe con­sis­tently rebuild their uni­ver­si­ties accord­ing to the Bachelor-​Master prin­ci­ple. This was for me incom­pat­i­ble with the Ger­man con­sti­tu­tional prin­ci­ple § 5, which secured the free­dom of sci­ence. They tried to silence me through a dis­ci­pli­nary pro­ce­dure, but I demanded my early retire­ment, which pre­vented this. It was still a dif­fi­cult phase that seri­ously chal­lenged my powers.

It was only after the stress was over that I had time to look after my vision of a “Parosphromenus Project” (PP). Cru­cial for this was that I met Helene Schoubye from Copen­hagen, a com­mit­ted and coura­geous woman, who was imme­di­ately enthu­si­as­tic for the “Paros” and was not afraid, despite being with a begin­ners expe­ri­ence, to tackle the pro­gram­ming of a web­site that con­tained every­thing nec­es­sary that we needed. There were three require­ments: to con­vey the basic knowl­edge about these fish in nature and in the aquar­ium, to do so in three lan­guages (Eng­lish, French and Ger­man) and to include a uni­ver­sal and three regional dis­cus­sion forums (Asia, Amer­ica and Europe). Helene is still web­mas­ter of our project today.

I was never ques­tioned that our PP would have to have a struc­ture that allowed to pur­sue five goals:

  1. Other aquar­is­tic: The most com­mon goal is the remod­el­ing of the aquar­ium from an increas­ingly com­mer­cial hobby to a seri­ous player in inter­na­tional nature con­ser­va­tion, exem­pli­fied and car­ried out by the exam­ple of licorice guramis. Instead of the eco­nomic inter­ests of the hobby indus­try, the inter­ests of nature and its lovers should again deter­mine the aquaria. The PP must have a suit­able man­age­ment level for this pur­pose, e.g. a suit­able steer­ing group (see below).

  1. Ethics and pol­i­tics: To this end, the new aquar­is­tic must change from an unpo­lit­i­cal liv­ing room hobby of rich coun­tries and play a polit­i­cal role by rec­og­niz­ing their shared respon­si­bil­ity for the destruc­tion that is hap­pen­ing on Earth. In the case of licorice guramis, this means actively oppos­ing the inter­ests of busi­ness and cor­rup­tion, which drive the destruc­tion of the nat­ural and cul­tural diver­sity in South­east Asia and develop a con­cept for sus­tain­able regional devel­op­ment (see the book men­tioned, pp. 4041).

  1. Preser­va­tion of habi­tats: The PP should not be sat­is­fied with the aquarium’s per­spec­tive, but should lead to the actual con­ser­va­tion of at least some of the unique black water habi­tats. The thought of some dream­ers that they could cre­ate new ones and rein­tro­duce in cap­tiv­ity bred ones, is for sev­eral rea­sons tech­ni­cally com­pletely naïve and non­sen­si­cal; Water­courses on peat soils are not arti­fi­cially sub­sti­tutable. Given the pace and extent of the for­est destruc­tion there, one can only try to pre­serve rem­nants; It is an almost not obtain­able race against too pow­er­ful oppo­nents in fast-​running time.

  1. Peo­ple and Cul­tures: The PP is a aquatic project, but it should not be for­got­ten that the destruc­tion of the for­est destroys not only bio­di­ver­sity, but also habi­tats of peo­ple and entire indige­nous cul­tures. It would be unac­cept­able to care for small fish, but not for the peo­ple liv­ing there. The area around it is, for exam­ple, one of the most language-​rich regions on Earth. The PP should also sup­port the grow­ing resis­tance of the peo­ples of the Dayak against the uneth­i­cal inflicted on them, because with­out them it will ulti­mately not be pos­si­ble to succeed.

  1. Con­ser­va­tion of aquar­ium stocks: The most achiev­able tar­get is the con­ser­va­tion of exist­ing aquar­ium stocks, but this also requires effi­cient mea­sures which must first be estab­lished because they do not belong to the usual behav­ioral reper­toire of the Aquar­ist (e.g. an appro­pri­ate level of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, a reg­u­lar cen­sus and a func­tion­ing dis­tri­b­u­tion, i.e. a sen­si­ble dis­tri­b­u­tion of the off­spring). Set­ting this up alone is dif­fi­cult, but it is prob­a­bly more acces­si­ble than the afore­men­tioned objec­tives. Here the cir­cle joins the first-​mentioned target.

  1. The sta­tus quo

What have we achieved and what not? Where does the PP stand today? The most com­mon answer is that none of these objec­tives has been achieved so far; We’re all on the way. At the very best, it looks at the lat­ter goal, rel­a­tively bad among the first-​mentioned. But there are still major prob­lems with the final goal, but the goal of pre­serv­ing habi­tats is the least tan­gi­ble suc­cess. Some details:

We have found about 500 peo­ple on all five con­ti­nents in 39 states of the world who are spe­cial Paro friends and con­nois­seurs. More are added every year, but not as fast as in the early days. The num­ber of the peo­ple who are impor­tant for the PP is def­i­nitely below 1000 world­wide. The inten­sity of the use of the PP web­site varies, most clearly this is vis­i­ble in the forums: The impor­tant Asia Forum has not so rightly come into the aisles, the Amer­ica forum has led to a rec­og­niz­able revival of the Paro scene in the USA, the Euro­pean forum focuses around the Paro scene Ger­many. The most lively forum is the uni­ver­sal forum, which sug­gests that the gen­eral objec­tive of the PP is under­stood and sup­ported, but that many are lim­ited to the hobby per­spec­tive (par­tial change of men­tal­ity, con­ser­va­tion breed­ing). That is quite a lot when you see the ini­tial situation.

But we also learn. For exam­ple, we are cur­rently striv­ing to sup­port the purely vol­un­tary work with a num­ber of insti­tu­tional links, so that, for exam­ple, the preser­va­tion of off­spring is also rein­forced by a pro­fes­sional com­po­nent and the enthu­si­as­tic breed­ers are relieved. This should also help to improve the dis­tri­b­u­tion of breed­ing. But will we be able to do that? There are first successes.

But there are also signs of fatigue (who is sur­prised?), e.g. in the par­tic­i­pa­tion in the cen­sus; We have not yet found a solu­tion to this. The resis­tance of the affected peo­ple in Asia has devel­oped pos­i­tively, which slows down the progress of the destruc­tion some­what, but has not yet stopped. This is hardly a merit of the PP, but helps the com­mon cause. It should not be con­cealed, how­ever, that we also write encour­ag­ing, sup­port­ive let­ters to affected indige­nous groups and have occa­sion­ally received very grate­ful answers. Many pub­li­ca­tions in addi­tion to the PP, espe­cially in Europe, also help us to fur­ther pro­mote our gen­eral and stronger goals and to strengthen the aware­ness base for the desired trans­for­ma­tion processes. So it is good, for exam­ple, that our Chi­nese steer­ing Group mem­ber Went­ian Shi explic­itly puts his expe­di­tions and the redis­cov­ery of the first described species into the con­text of this PP and thus, world­wide, but not least also in East Asia, indi­cates on its importance.

So it is not yet pos­si­ble to say con­clu­sively whether the PP is a suc­cess, because the project is not com­plete. As a par­tic­i­pant, I can­not judge this well, but oth­ers must do so. I am very pleased that many con­sider the project to be suc­cess­ful, but I believe that we have to wait with this ver­dict. The main objec­tives of the project can­not be achieved in Europe or Amer­ica alone, nor on the Inter­net; it is decided in Asia. It could be that we only save a lit­tle there. Only: The larger the goals, the more dif­fi­cult they are achiev­able. But if one does not set great goals for fear of miss­ing parts of it, there is cer­tainly noth­ing to achieve. And you also need par­tial suc­cesses, good inter­me­di­ate results, even in smaller things. They exist.

The risks that still lie ahead are unmis­tak­able. The race against power and time has not yet ended. But there is still some­thing to save. One of the tools we have come up with is the Parosphromenus Award, a prize that we have so far awarded to per­sons who have per­formed out­stand­ing achieve­ments for the pur­pose of our project. Went­ian Shi was the last prize win­ner to date. We are, for exam­ple, deter­mined to apply new meth­ods to Asia (e.g. buy­ing prop­erty) if oppor­tu­ni­ties are offered. Luck­ily, the nature con­ser­va­tion scene is get­ting stronger there too. All this is not easy. But we never had the illu­sion that it would be a sim­ple way. Those who have strength­ened them­selves in Euro­pean nature con­ser­va­tion now see that they can make good use of this strength at inter­na­tional level. It gives us a lot of encour­age­ment and a tail­wind. That’s why we’re going to keep going.

We, this is the cur­rent steer­ing group of the PP, namely (in alpha­bet­i­cal order): Bernd Bus­sler (Breeding/​distribution), Pavel Chaloupka (Spe­cial arti­cle), Rafael Eggli (Analysis/​reflection), Peter Finke (Management/​science), Chris­t­ian Kop­pitz (insti­tu­tions), Helene Schoubye (vice. Man­age­ment and web­mas­ter), Went­ian shi (Expe­di­tions), and Ben­jamin Wilden (census).

I thank Helene Schoubye for some crit­i­cal com­ments on a first ver­sion of the text.Its final form, pos­si­ble faults and other short­com­ings, are attrib­ut­able exclu­sively to me.

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