Barcelona City Council and Edicions de la Universitat de Barcelona publish Jordi Sabater Pi. L’últim naturalista, by Toni Pou, the history of one of the most important Catalan scientists from the 20th century.
Everybody is familiar with Floquet de Neu, the albino gorilla that put Barcelona on the world tourist map. But not everybody knows the person who brought him here, the pioneering international primatologist Jordi Sabater Pi. If he always considered Floquet de Neu an anecdote, what must his own life have been like? Spoiler: like something out of a film.
Based on letters written and received over a period of nearly thirty years from what was then Spanish Guinea, the book opulently reveals the details of a fascinating life. At the age of 17, after the Spanish Civil War and having fought as a volunteer on the Republican side, Sabater Pi decided to go to Equatorial Guinea to be able to provide financial support for his family. In his first few years there he combined a job on a plantation with ethnological research on the Fang people. “They had actually eaten other people. And not as part of a ritual, but rather as part of their everyday diet. Like one might eat some yucca or a rib of lamb. Much as some anthropologists refused to accept it, the Fang people had been cannibals”, writes Sabater Pi in one of his letters.
The evil spirit of the forest
At the request of the bird keeper for the American Museum of Natural History in New York, James P. Chapin, he began to study the nvebek, a bird capable of digesting wax. It was Chapin too who encouraged him to study gorillas, or the “evil spirit of the jungle”. After numerous obstacles, he set up the Ikunde Animal Adaptation and Experimentation Centre in 1961. This made Barcelona the only city in the world with a research centre abroad, alongside New York.
The US medical research agency, the National Institutes of Health, would later support the research project headed by Sabater Pi, the idea being that the study of primates could provide a response to the origin of some medical conditions which affected humans.
Following the slaughter of some gorillas on an estate in October 1966, one of the owners heard a baby gorilla crying and took the baby albino to Sabater Pi. They christened him Nfumu, better known among people in Barcelona as Floquet de Neu. The primatologist was offered a million euros for him, and then a blank cheque, by the organisers of the Montreal Universal Exposition. Despite financial hardship, Sabater Pi rejected the offer. The only sense he could see was for the animal to be at Barcelona Zoo. Nfumu arrived in the city on 1 November 1966.
The book will be presented at the La Dama del Zoo restaurant (access via Parc de la Ciutadella) on Tuesday, 31 January, at 6 pm. The presentation will be chaired by Laia Bonet Rull, Third Deputy Mayor and Councillor for the Area for 2030 Agenda, Digital Transition, Sports and Territorial and Metropolitan Coordination, and feature Toni Pou, physicist, writer and author of the book, accompanied by Jordi Amat, writer and curator of the collection “Gent de Barcelona”.
Coinciding with the book presentation, the same day brings the opening of the travelling exhibition “Maa-Yiem, l’extraordinària història de Jordi Sabater Pi”, curated by Alfons Par and offering an in-depth look at the figure of Sabater Pi, closely linked to Barcelona Zoo, and his pioneering scientific research in Africa. The exhibition provides an interesting journey through the key moments and events of his life. The display is in the classroom for the Zoo’s 120th anniversary, inside the Aviary, until 12 September. Opening times coincide with those of the Zoo. The exhibition will then make its way around various municipal facilities.