Snowflake: The White Gorilla
Snowflake's Legacy

An adolescent Snowflake

The fall of 2003 brought sad days to the zoo in Barcelona, Spain. After nearly 40 years, Snowflake the white gorilla — who was the zoo’s most famous resident — was nearing death. Crowds gathered to pay a last, respectful visit to the elderly, ivory-maned gorilla, an emblem of one of Spain’s proudest cities. His wrinkled face and knowing eyes stared out from posters and postcards on every corner.

Snowflake’s keepers could barely conceal their pain. “Snowflake has lost his desire to play around with the rest of the family,” said one, sighing; “he prefers to sit alone, out of sight.” The keeper mentioned that caretakers were giving the gorilla painkillers.

The end came on November 24, 2003, when Snowflake died from cancer. “Until the end Snowflake enjoyed a fantastic quality of life, interacting normally with his children and grandchildren,” said the zoo’s chief, Jesus Fernandez.

But while Snowflake may be gone, his legacy remains. In his time at the zoo, he fathered 21 gorillas, who have in turn given birth to 10 grandchildren, says Carme Mate, a primatologist in Barcelona who observed Snowflake for years. “The mothers were 3 females born in Equatorial Guinea, like Snowflake,” she says. “Their names were Ndengue, Bimbili, and Yuma. Ndengue was always his favorite, and Snowflake showed much distress after her death” a few years before his own.

Four of Snowflake’s children are still alive, Mate says. Three females, Kena, Machinda, and Virunga, live at the Barcelona Zoo. One male, Bindung, resides at the Fukuoka Zoological Garden in Japan. Nine grandchildren also survive, five of whom are still at the Barcelona Zoo. “Snowflake’s last grandchildren were born in August 2004,” says Mate. “Two are twins, male and female. This is a remarkable event, since the birth of twins is quite unusual in gorillas.”

None of Snowflake’s offspring, however, is albino (several of the grandchildren have had light patches on their hands or feet at birth, but they disappear with age). That’s because Snowflake’s albinism was the very rare product of a genetic coincidence: both his mother and his father had to carry a specific gene. Albino gorillas are rare for another reason: because the trait can make the animals more vulnerable to skin cancer (which ultimately killed Snowflake) and other health problems.

At the Barcelona Zoo, for instance, researchers who studied Snowflake learned that the gorilla had poor vision, due to a lack of pigment in his eyes. He often frowned in an attempt to protect his eyes from bright light. His vision problems appeared to reduce his coordination and confidence. In the wild, such difficulties might have prevented Snowflake from ever reproducing — or perhaps from surviving at all.

Today, researchers are studying Snowflake’s family to see how the famous gorilla’s genes have been handed down through the generations. They are also using his memory to sustain efforts to protect gorillas in the wild — and improve their lives in zoos. A Snowflake research fund, each year hands out grants to scientists interested in improving our understanding of gorillas.

It’s essential work. All three kinds of African wild gorillas — the western lowland gorilla, the eastern lowland gorilla, and the mountain gorilla — are in trouble. Researchers estimate that fewer than 10,000 remain in the wild, of which 9,000 are western lowland gorillas. Deforestation and hunting are the greatest threats.

In Barcelona, Snowflake’s memory lingers. The gorilla was “an unforgettable companion for our city, and we all feel regret at losing him,” the city’s mayor said. “He’s made a great contribution to his species by making the plight of gorillas more known, and the best thing we can do for him now is to continue that work.”

  • Carmen Burgos

    I just finished watching the episode on Snowflake and I still have tears in my eyes. What a beautiful gorilla he was. I will always remember him. Hopefully with the continued research and work they will be protected.

  • Lori Cain

    I missed this episode, but my dad told me about it and I googled it. I would love to know when it will be repeated so I can watch it.

  • hayley

    i saw snowflake in 2000 he was very nice and funny
    i will always think about him

  • Margaret Potter

    We visited the Zoo’s Snowflake and Gorillas indoor exhibition in 2007. It was poignant and truly fascinating.

  • Theresa Arreguin

    I watched the special on Nature PBS. What a beautiful Gorilla he was, and I hope his life story will be repeated again, I will let my family and friends know to watch, and thank you Barcelona Zoo for giving him a beautiful place to live and good health care.

  • mark

    oh.em.geeee!!that is the cutest gorilla everr!!like whoa sweetheart much?!?!

  • Ros

    I am watching this special right now and had to find out more about Snowflake. What a beautiful animal and the continuation of perserving their lives is a necessity. What a loss in losing Snowflake.

  • dayun

    So sad…ㅜㅜ

  • Hugh

    I remember seeing him in 1990. He was so cute and playful that when he died i just couldnt believe it

  • wendell

    was snowflake the only white gorilla

  • pedro

    i wish i got to see snowflake and yes he was the only white monkey i was born 1999 i’m only 10 i’m sad. :(

  • raymond

    Saw snowflakes in 1996 with my wife on a drizzling afternoon. It got really tricky to get a couple of pictures of two groups of gorillas in seperate cages
    Each time we pointed the camera the primates simply turned their back to us. I managed to trick them and being a rather gloomy afternoon I used the flash and behold — the rage that ensued really freithened us to the skin Unbeleivably the gorillas wanted to tear the cages down and the other quite large group of monkeys in a huge pit could feel the raging air around as they just scrambled to the very roots of a large tree as the top of the tree more or less was at the gorillas eye level sort of well after surveiling the rest of the zoo again ,we went to see snowflakes and the rest and the glances we got where certainly not friendly but somehow understanding. We have been showing the albino picture with so many astonishment to many, obviously we really felt sad when death was announced on international news

  • Stuart

    my wife and i got to see snowflake on a visit to the zoo,we only went with the intention of seeing him,as news of his illness made our visit even more important,so it was with great sadness to hear of his passing,he was a joy never to be repeated,he still looks down at me from his poster picture above my computer desk

  • Milims

    My children and I saw the magnificent Snowflake about a month before he died (although we didn’t know it at the time). He created an amazing impression on us. He was so human – my kids thought that he looked like their Poppie! We all smile at the thought of him :)

  • Emileigh

    that is so sweet i have never heard of a white gorilla before that is very interesting to know

  • George

    Wonderful story. It sparked men interest to do some research on Fossey and Goodall.
    It is good to find out that Fossey’s work sparked more concern for the habitat of the gorillas in captivity.
    She is the major reason they enjoy their more natural homes.

  • Nuchawara

    I think human is the most mean creature in the world. I feel sad for Snowflake’s story. People killed their whole family just to send litltle babies to the zoos to entertain us. We try hard to make Gorillas live just like in nature by spending a lot of money in decoate the cage . We also try even harder to make them givng birth while a lot of them in nature were killed for big trade without protecting.

    If Snowflake never ever had presented in any zoo, maybe more Gorillas lived happily in their home.

  • leah

    Snowflake wasn’t different, but he made you ALL see each living being is UNIQUE! Appreciate you and all living beings for what they are…living…

  • vanessa Neil

    Ive had a fasination with snowflake ever since I saw him on the cover of national geographic. I think he was a beautiful animal, because he was different. Just plain beautiful.

  • Ricardo Americo

    No Brasil, gostaria que divulga-se essa raridade em filmes, como The Ivory Ape,(O Gorila Marfim) de 1980 ou The White Gorilla,(O Gorila Branco) de 1945.

  • Rose

    As i was looking through photos, i found a picture/poster of Snowflake that i purchased in 2003 when i visited the zoo in Barcelon and saw Snowflake. I was mortified to hear of his death upon my return to the US; but then iI understood why he looked at me with his heavy sad eyes. It felt like I was looking into the eyes of an aging grandparent with a tremendous amount of knowledge being withheld from me. Even then (July 2003) Snowflake looked into my eyes as if to say good-bye. He was surrounded by his family who seemed to be proud of him and he of them. He was awesome even then and made a connection with meIi will never forget.

  • John

    I enjoyed the National Geographic Magazine story when Snowflake was found. I read that he was taken to the Barcelona Zoo and thought that it would be cool to see him some day. When my friends and I backpacked across Europe in the summer of 1972, one of our stops was Barcelona. I remembered the magazine article and I made a special trip to the zoo and there I saw Snowflake. He was really amazing and I still have my photos of him.

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