Wednesday, August 12, 2009
jordi sabater pi (1922 - 2009)
Unless you live in Spain or are connected to the world of ethology, you've probably never heard of Jordi Sabater Pi, who died last week at the age of 87. Yet he was one of the most successful and influential Spanish primatologists of the 20th century.
Born in Barcelona in 1922, Sabater Pi traveled to the former Spanish colony of Equatorial Guinea when he was just 17. There, he decided to research the local rainforest fauna, which included various species of great ape. He taught himself the Fang language and gained the nickname of "the person who never drinks water" among the friends he made there. He went on to study in other parts of Africa, at which time he made some crucial discoveries about primate behavior. One of his most important finds was that chimpanzees in the Okorobiko mountains transmitted cultural information from one generation to the next, and in particular used sticks to maintain community ties. In Rwanda, Sabater Pi also worked with primatologist Dian Fossey; the two collaborated in a study of mountain gorillas.
Despite decades of work and dozens of scientific publications, Sabater Pi is probably best known for his role in finding the only albino gorilla known to modern science. In 1962, he was the director of the Ikunde Zoological Adaptation and Experimentation Center in Guinea when a group of locals told him that they'd found a rare animal in the bush. The men had killed a mother gorilla who was supposedly threatening their crops, and they soon realized she had been holding a single baby the color of snow. Sabater Pi purchased the orphan, who would go on to become the most famous resident ever to reside at the Barcelona Zoo. He was named Floquet de Neu, which means "Snowflake" in Catalan, and he lived for close to 40 years until his death in 2003.
Aside from his fieldwork and later duties as a professor at the University of Barcelona, Sabater Pi enjoyed drawing. A collection of his nature sketches—along with thousands of his documents and photographs—can be seen at the Barcelona Science Park in Spain. For those of you who speak Catalan, this interview, which he gave just over a year ago, provides a wealth of information about his background, achievements, and personal thoughts. ∞