Perhaps one of the most interesting ways that people use species is to support our own actions, beliefs, and loyalties. Some of the most recognizable mascots and brands in the world are based on the qualities associated with a species or, more often than not, the actual species itself. Our cultures are filled with businesses, institutions, and sports teams that use species to invoke pride in what they produce and to create a focal point for human passion and spirit. These species provide the possibility to transcend what we consider to be our strictly human qualities to represent ourselves and our allegiances through the characteristics of other species.
When FIFA started looking for a mascot for the 2014 World Cup they certainly had many amazing species from which to choose. Brazil is rich in biodiversity and any number of species may have proved to be a strong mascot for the World Cup. Within Brazil, the Associação Caatinga (a non-governmental organization) decided that this major sports event would be an ideal platform to raise awareness for a charismatic little armadillo that until 1988 was considered to be an extinct species. The Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus), or tatu-bola as it is locally known, occurs only in the Caatinga and Cerrado regions of north-eastern Brazil—two of the nations most threatened biomes—and is listed as a Vulnerable species on The IUCN Red List. From the moment of its suggestion the tatu-bola was considered a perfect candidate as it can roll up into an almost impenetrable ball and it occurs only in Brazil.
Indeed, in September 2012 FIFA announced that the Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo would be the official mascot and named it Fuleco, a fusion of the Portuguese words for football (futebol) and ecology (ecologia). FIFA declared that Fuleco ‘can play a key role in driving environmental awareness’, and the conservation community cheered that the World Cup would be the first major event to specifically commit to the conservation of a threatened species and its habitat, leaving a conservation legacy well beyond the 2014 World Cup.
Now that the 2014 World Cup is coming to a close, Fuleco has rapidly become the most successful FIFA World Cup mascot of all time and has undoubtedly generated millions of dollars in revenue through merchandising. However, in an all too predictable fashion, FIFA joins all the other businesses, institutions, and sports teams who seem to have forgotten about the species that gave rise to their mascots. What seemed like a major commitment from FIFA to supporting conservation may end up being nothing more than a successful attempt to tap into the human connection to other species to increase merchandising profits, without regard for the species itself.
While the Brazilian Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Sport are supportive of conservation efforts, FIFA has, thusfar, remained silent. A group of researchers have sharply criticised FIFA and the Brazilian government for ignoring environmental commitments, and challenged them to protect 1000 hectares of Caatinga habitat for every goal scored during the competition—making Brazil’s loss to Germany a serious win for its biodiversity. IUCN’s Director General Julia Marton-Lefèvre and the Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Simon Stuart, have sent a letter to FIFA’s President Joseph Blatter, inviting him to support conservation initiatives for this amazing creature, but have not yet received a response.
In spite of the current lack of support from FIFA, the tatu-bola has become a symbol for the conservation of the Caatinga, one of the least protected and least studied habitats in Brazil. In preparation, Associação Caatinga have teamed up with the IUCN Species Survival Commission Anteater, Sloth and Armadillo Specialist Group and The Nature Conservancy to prepare a long-term strategy and action plan for the conservation of the Three-banded Armadillo with a view to maintaining the species in its natural habitat, and reducing its risk of extinction. The conservation community hopes that FIFA can take the amazing opportunity it has been afforded to support necessary conservation actions for the Brazilian three-banded armadillo and Brazilian biodiversity—be it before or after the announcement of the 2014 World Cup winner.