How I Rediscovered the World Cup Mascot in the Wild

Today, the 2014 FIFA World Cup begins in Brazil. Thirty-two national squads will dispute who has the best football on the planet, as billions of people look on. No other sport or event mobilizes the energy, hearts and souls of so many people at once.

Brazilian three-banded armadillo

Brazilian three-banded armadillo. (© Liana Sena /Associação Caatinga)

At the very core of this event is its mascot, a Brazilian three-banded armadillo named Fuleco whose name is a combination of the Portuguese words futebol (football) and ecologia (ecology). I know this species quite well — in fact, I rediscovered it in the wild.

Twenty-six years ago I was conducting bird surveys in the magnificent tropical dry forests of northeastern Brazil known as the Caatinga. Suddenly I found a pair of small armadillos exploring a termite nest, looking for food. I stopped to watch them in action.

After a few minutes, I decided to approach them. They tried to escape, but weren’t very fast. When I touched one of the armadillos with my foot, it quickly rolled up into a tight, almost impenetrable ball. Its ears tucked into the shell and the head and tail interlocked to seal the shell completely.

I examined the two animals for a few minutes and let them go. Several days later, I found a new pair at the same site. Although I was focused on my birds, the armadillos continued to enchant me.

When I returned to my lab and library, I discovered that the species I had found was the rare Brazilian three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus) — a species known only from six reliable specimens, and one which most scientists thought had vanished. I also learned that several recent attempts by researchers to rediscover the species in nature had failed. I was the lucky one.

I continued to explore the dry forests in northeastern Brazil. Three years after my first encounter, I found another population of Brazilian three-banded armadillos, this one in a well-protected patch of dry forest along the mighty São Francisco River. The species was more common here than at the first site.

This time I was better prepared. I decided to learn more about this rare species by conducting more observations and learning from the best informants one can find in the field: local people.

I observed that that these armadillos eat mostly termites and ants that they capture on the surface of the soil; the species is not a powerful digger like the other armadillos in the region. I found that they are chiefly solitary, but occasionally travel in small family groups of up to three members.

In conversations with local villagers, I was taught that because of their unique defensive behavior, Brazilian three-banded armadillos were easy targets for hunters. As a consequence, their populations were declining everywhere.

In 1994, together with my old friend and mentor David Oren, I published a paper on my findings in the scientific journal Mammalia. I believe our findings brought hope to other researchers interested in the fate of the three-banded armadillos.

Several scientists went to the field looking for this interesting creature, and brought back very good news.

The species was indeed rare, but its range was larger that I had originally thought. In addition to the dry forests of northeastern Brazil, it was also found in the Cerrado, the savanna-like vegetation that dominates central Brazil.

Cerrado, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Cerrado landscape in northern Minas Gerais, Brazil. (© Guilherme B. Ferreira)

Researchers also learned that hunting is the major threat for the species, followed by the destruction of their habitat to make way for agriculture fields. They found populations of Brazilian three-banded armadillos in at least four large protected areas in Brazil, which ensure at least a minimum level of protection for the species.

Currently, it is listed as Vulnerable by both the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species and the Brazilian government. Fortunately, thanks to organizations like the Associação Caatinga and their anti-extinction campaign, the Brazilian three-banded armadillo is getting more attention.

Cerrado and Caatinga are two of Brazil’s most important biomes. Together they encompass around 2.9 million square kilometers (more than 1.1 million square miles — an area larger than Argentina). Their ecosystems provide benefits for more than 52 million people, yet poor protection has led to significant destruction of these unique habitats.

The health of local ecosystems continue to decline, and places that were once vibrant spots for biodiversity and ecosystem services are now degraded. The loss of these biomes is not only a threat to armadillos, but to all species residing there — including humans.

Brazil has the skills and resources to protect its natural resources. What it lacks is the political will to make the right decisions at the right time.

At Rio+20, the country missed an opportunity to lead the world toward a more sustainable future. At the World Cup — and the upcoming 2016 Olympics — I hope that Brazil will not miss the chance to set a good global example.

A group of young biologists recently published an interesting idea in the scientific journal Biotropica. They challenged the government of Brazil to create at least 1,000 hectares (almost 2,500 acres) of protected areas within the range of the Brazilian three-banded armadillo for each goal scored in the 2014 World Cup. I know personally most of the authors of this paper — and though I know that they are not very good football players, I love their idea.

I would like to propose a slightly different challenge for the Brazilian government to link conservation and football. Playing in the FIFA World Cup is the dream of many boys around the world. Unfortunately, very few will achieve it.

The ones who get the privilege work really hard to make their dreams come true. They are national and global heroes regardless of the tournament’s final result — and they deserve to be recognized.

My challenge for the Brazilian government is simple: Create 1,000 hectares of protected areas or other effective conservation mechanisms in Caatinga or Cerrado, honoring each player on the 32 national teams that have come to Brazil to realize their dreams. This commitment would protect the hundreds of Fulecos that still thrive on Brazilian soil — and I’m sure the players and their families would love it.

José Maria “Ze” Cardoso da Silva is CI’s executive vice president for field programs.

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