Famous white gorilla goes to jungle in the sky

Copito de Nieve (Snowflake), the world’s only known white gorilla, died on Monday in the Barcelona zoo, officials said in the northeastern Spanish city.

The albino gorilla, which was estimated to be about 40 years old, suffered from incurable skin cancer.

During the last months of the gorilla’s life, Barcelona residents queued to take leave of the animal affectionately known as Copito, which had been a symbol of the city for decades.

Over the last few days, the zoo cordoned off Copito’s cage to prevent visitors from seeing him sick and apathetic. The 181kg male gorilla was finally put to death to end his suffering.

The zoo was expected to incinerate Copito and to keep samples of his DNA, though cloning technology does not allow for the production of another white gorilla.

When the fair-skinned and blue-eyed western lowland gorilla was born in the rainforests of Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa, he did not seem destined for fame, but for an early death.

Farmer Benito Manie shot the gorilla’s family, which he caught stealing his bananas, and the white colour of the orphan would have made him an easy target for predators.

Yet Manie rescued the strange little gorilla from the arms of his dead mother and took him to Jordi Savater Pi, a Spanish primates expert working at a research centre in the country, which was then a Spanish colony.

When the farmer told employees at the centre that he had a white gorilla to sell, they reportedly thought he was drunk.

“The gorilla was dirty and covered with wounds and parasites,” Savater Pi said in a recent interview. “But when I saw him, I realised that he was unique.”

The scientist says he has heard of gorillas with white spots, but of none that was entirely white.
The genetic origin of Copito’s albinism remains a mystery despite research on his DNA.

Ngui Nfumu (white gorilla in the fang language) adapted well to life in captivity.

“He stayed with me a for a month, playing with my kids,” Savater Pi says. He then sent the gorilla to the Barcelona zoo in 1966.

Under the new name Copito de Nieve, the snow-coloured gorilla became a worldwide celebrity, making the cover of the National Geographic magazine and drawing incredulous zoologists from all over the world.

The zoo rejected offers for Copito to star in Hollywood movies and to feature in Japanese publicity campaigns.

The animal even made an official visit to the Barcelona city hall, and the city considered making him the symbol of the 1992 Olympic Games.

“I don’t share the crappy sentimentalism about Copito,” an annoyed Savater Pi said. “It is the wild gorillas who are the most fascinating.”

Copito should symbolise an endangered species whose natural habitats are being destroyed, Savater Pi suggested.

For Barcelona residents, however, the gorilla whose face adorns countless postcards was their own “beloved and huggy King Kong”, the daily Periodico wrote.

Hoping to produce another white gorilla, the zoo mated Copito with three females, but none of his 21 offspring were white.

In captivity, Copito reached the venerable age of 40 years, the equivalent of 80 human years. He finally succumbed to a skin cancer attributed to his condition as albino.

Despite Copito’s easy life in the midst of his females and grandchildren, his periodically depressed behaviour indicated that “paradise is not in Barcelona, but in the Guinean jungle”, former zoo director Antoni Jonch wrote.—Sapa-DPA

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