Riverbanks Zoo succeeds with endangered birds

Bob Seibels was more concerned with keeping the captive population of an endangered species healthy than with winning awards.

Now, almost 30 years since Seibels started a program that ensured better genetic makeup of Bali mynahs in zoos and six years after he retired from Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, the zoo has received the Edward H. Bean Award, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' highest honor.

In typical Seibels fashion, he downplays his role.

Other zoos had successful Bali mynah breeding programs before Riverbanks started its own with six wild-caught birds in 1973, he said. But nobody had written down the best breeding protocols and, more importantly in the long run, nobody was tracking breeding to ensure genetic diversity. Seibels did both, setting standards that led to a healthy captive population of the birds.

"Once zoos figured out how to breed them in the mid '70s, they did quite well," Seibels said. "Then it was a matter of managing the genetics."

After he started keeping track of the genetic records (technically called a studbook), Seibels recognized that in zoos with multiple Bali mynahs, two birds would dominate the breeding. "They were grossly in-bred," he said.

With Riverbanks leading the way, North American zoos in the 1980s began trying to control which birds would be allowed to breed to maintain genetic variety. They instituted time limits. If two selected birds simply refused to mate for a year, they went to a backup pairing.

"It seems fairly basic, but no one had really sat down and looked at it," Seibels said.

Thirty years later, the captive Bali mynah population is in great shape genetically, Seibels said. There are more than 200 in North American zoos and at least as many in European and Japanese zoos.

"It's one of the most successful and stable populations due to the groundwork Bob laid and the protocols he devised," said Martin Vince, who assisted Seibels at Riverbanks for years and took over as bird curator after Seibels retired.

The wild population isn't doing as well, suffering from loss of habitat due to logging in Indonesia. The attractive birds - with black tips on their tails and distinctive blue skin around their eyes - also are popular in the illegal pet trade. Experts estimate that fewer than 200 remain in the wild, and many of those were released in recent years after being born in captivity.

While the management of captive Bali mynahs was one of the highlights of Seibels' 33 years at Riverbanks, he was frustrated in his attempts to set up a program to release captive birds in Indonesia. Despite more than a dozen trips to the multi-island nation, he couldn't overcome the region's constant political upheavals.

"I'm an animal guy and a scientist and an ornithologist," Seibels said. "All those things are straightforward and simple compared to the political things we ran into in Bali and in Indonesia. ... If it was only science, we'd be going gangbusters over there already."

Recent captive-release efforts backed by European zoos and non-governmental agencies have worked well enough that the species might have a future in the wild.

In the meantime, Riverbanks remains one of the top producers of new Bali mynahs. Just this summer, Riverbanks celebrated its 45th hatching of a Bali mynah, and the parents of that one appear to be at it again, Vince said.

Technically, the Bean award goes to the entire Riverbanks staff. But the Association of Zoos and Aquariums felt so highly of Seibels' work they produced two plaques, one for the zoo and one for Seibels.

"I'm very, very grateful," said Seibels, 64, who spends most of his time these days gardening, building furniture and hunting. "Most people who've been out of the business 5 1/2 years, nobody remembers them."