The World Cup is a chance to save Brazil’s ‘football’ armadillos

This is not a football. MTSOfan/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

What lives in Brazil and looks like a football? Brazil’s official World Cup mascot. The three-banded armadillo is a mammal native to Brazil’s dry tropical forests, and rolls into a ball when threatened. But nearly half of the armadillos’ habitat has been cleared.

The armadillo was named as Brazil’s World Cup mascot in an attempt to draw attention to its plight, but the Brazilian government has been slow to take action. So, could football protect a species? We thought so, and the results, if not exactly a goal, are hopeful.

Football armadillos

Known as “tatu-bola” in Portuguese, the mascot was named Fuleco, an acronym of “futebol” (football) and “ecologia” (ecology).

Surprise, it’s actually an armadillo. Brittney Bush Bollay/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

The armadillos are endemic to the dry caatinga forests of north eastern Brazil, and also nearby cerrado grasslands.

The species is considered vulnerable under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Brazilian threatened species red list, due to patchy distribution, decreasing population (by 30% over the last decade), heavy hunting, and habitat loss. Although the current number of surviving individuals in the wild is unknown, the armadillo has probably disappeared over much of its range.

The three-banded armadillo is among the most poorly known species of armadillo, and is a priority for research, especially in its ecology, conservation, population genetics, reproduction, and threats.

Vanishing habitat

The armadillos’ main habitat, the caatinga, is considered the world´s richest tropical dry forest but is experiencing a strong human pressure and is now reduced to 53% of its original area.

Not the Amazon - but the caatinga is considered the richest tropical dry forest in the world. A. Duarte/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The remaining forested regions are intensely used as sources of both industrial and domestic fuelwood and extensive livestock ranching. More than 20 million people live within the caatinga, most among the poorest in Brazil, boosting the hunting pressure on the three-banded armadillo.

The caatinga forest is the least-known and least-protected of all ecosystems in Brazil, with only about 1% of its original area under strict protection by law. There are few parks and reserves in the whole area: 24 at federal level, but only five of them are strictly nature reserves.

Most of the protected areas within the caatinga are under-funded and under-staffed, and situations where a single ranger is responsible for areas larger than 100,000 hectares are common.

One of the spectacular landscapes in Brazil’s caatinga. Danielle Pereira/Flickr, CC BY

Armadillos in the spotlight?

So, FIFA and the Brazilian government selected an endemic and endangered species whose habitat is vanishing. Facing such contrasting scenarios — the largest and arguably most profitable sporting event in the world, plus a species and its habitat in need of protection — we expected that selection could bring some hope to the armadillo and the caatinga.

But three years after the announcement of the mascot we were disappointed to see that not a single action specifically focused on protecting this endangered species or its habitat had been put into practice by FIFA and the Brazilian government.

Make some noise

So we decided to make some noise, in a paper published in the journal Biotropica.

We argued that it was not too late for Brazil and the World Cup’s organisers to make the changes that would protect the armadillo and its habitat.

First, we asked the Brazilian government to fulfil its commitment to the World Cup Parks project. Announced in late 2011, the Brazilian government promised US$275 million in infrastructure investments in 26 federal and 21 state and municipal protected areas. But two years later the number of protected areas that received the benefit was reduced to 16 and less than 2% of the original money was effectively granted.

Second, we asked for the creation of a “Tatu-bola” Park, expanding the protected area of the caatinga in order to sustain populations of armadillos. We encouraged an ambitious goal: 1,000 hectares of caatinga declared for each goal scored by any team during the World Cup.

Finally, we asked that the Brazilian government to accelerate the completion of the armadillo’s species conservation plan. For 20 years the armadillos have been listed as vulnerable, without any formal plan to improve their status.

A real football with a real armadillo. Michelle Bender/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Victory?

About a month after the publication of the article and just days before the World Cup kicks off, we have had mixed results from our effort. The media coverage was massive, even bigger than we expected.

Our challenge was exposed by all major communication channels in Brazil and worldwide. Facebook, Twitter and other social networking services helped to spread the message in an astonishing speed. Activism sites like Avaaz.org and Change.org turned our demands into public campaigns. We received dozens of messages from colleagues congratulating us for the initiative.

But FIFA and the Brazilian government were less committed. Pressed by an international news agency, FIFA declared that Fuleco “helped to raise awareness in Brazil about the three-banded armadillo and its status of vulnerable species”, but said that the mascot is not being “used to promote specific environmental messages”.

But then the Brazilian government, perhaps worried about its image abroad, finally announced on May 22, the publication of the species´ Conservation Action Plan.

One of the actions proposed in the document is exactly the creation of a new protected area in the caatinga, designated to safeguard the remaining populations of the armadillo. We expect an official announcement in the next months.

A victory? Well, not exactly. We still expect FIFA to contribute in a more effective way with the species, perhaps putting in practice the fair play they promote.

Funding the soon-to-be-created park would be good. How? By donating part of the World Cup Legacy Trust, a multi-million dollar charity fund which will be created after the tournament in Brazil, to truly protect the three-banded armadillo and its habitat. That would really be the golden goal of the World Cup in Brazil.

This article was co-authored by José A. Siqueira, Bráulio A. Santos, Orione Alvares-da-Silva and Gerardo Ceballos.

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