When Brazil made the Brazilian three-banded armadillo the mascot of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, it was said to be a goal scored for armadillo conservation.
After all, the World Cup mascot represents a species only found in Brazil and believed to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1988. It is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, which just updated its Red List.
So, conservationists were understandably excited.
"We are sure that the fact that a threatened species is featured in such an important event will not only trigger conservation initiatives to save the Brazilian three-banded armadillo from extinction, but also help increase awareness for biodiversity conservation in general," Dr. Mariella Superina, Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission Anteater, Sloth and Armadillo Specialist Group said at the time of the November 2012 announcement.
However, as the FIFA World Cup began in Brazil on Thursday, scientists were still waiting for FIFA to do its part in pushing to protect parts of the armadillo’s dry forest habitat and to contribute financially to prevent its extinction, or commit to the same.
So far, Fuleco, the World Cup mascot named after futebol (football) and ecologia (ecology), is whiffing on a free kick.
Rodrigo Castro, executive secretary of the Caatinga Association, a non-government organization that champions the conservation of the armadillo and its habitat known as Caatinga, pointed out to The Guardian that the World Cup will profit hugely from the image of Fuleco.
"It is not fair that the Brazil 2014 World Cup should be making so much from the image of the tatu-bola [the Portuguese name for the armadillo], but at the same time FIFA is not committed or interested in helping the protection of the species with a small part of this profit," Castro told The Guardian.
"If Fuleco is helping the World Cup to be so profitable, why can't the same event not give back part of this income to save the animal?"
The BBC reported that the government has met with scientists to discuss drawing up a conservation plan, but FIFA has yet to respond.
One of its sponsors, Continental Tyres, made a one-time donation of $45,000 (USD), but it was only enough to get Project Tatu-bola (aimed at preventing the armadillo's extinction) off the ground, Castro told The Guardian.
Brazilian scientists made a suggestion via an article published last month in Biotropica, saying, "As football fans and conservationists, we challenge FIFA and Brazil to set an ambitious mark: at least 1,000 hectares [3.86 square miles] of Caatinga declared as protected area for each goal scored during the 2014 World Cup."
The BBC reported that based on the 170-goal average from recent World Cups, it would have meant 170,000 hectares (656 square miles) of new protected habitat.
The Caatinga dry forest once covered 845,000 square km or about 11 percent of the Brazilian territory, but that has been reduced by half, the BBC reported.
In its defense, FIFA told the BBC that Fuleco "has helped to raise awareness in Brazil around the three-banded armadillo and its status as a vulnerable species. According to our latest research in the Brazilian market Fuleco is known by 95 percent of the Brazilian population…[And it plays an important part] in regards to recycling and reducing the impact of waste on the environment."
However, Castro and other conservationists don't believe Fuleco and FIFA are doing enough.
"The Brazilian three-banded armadillo gave life to Fuleco, but Fuleco has achieved very little for the three-banded armadillo," Castro told the BBC. "We hope that millions of people watching the matches will become aware of the plight of this animal and that the World Cup will have an impact on the fate of the species.
"The outcome depends to a great extent on FIFA. We still hope it will understand this is the first-ever World Cup that could leave a lasting legacy for biodiversity, helping to save the Brazilian three-banded armadillo from extinction."
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