By Cadija Tissiani
If football is able to mobilize crowds, the World Cup seems to be a golden opportunity to bring public attention to a cause. In the case of the three-banded armadillo, a noble cause. The exclusively-Brazilian species was chosen as the mascot of the 2014 FIFA World Cup after a virtual campaign led by Associação Caatinga, an NGO whose mission is to preserve the biodiversity of the uniquely Brazilian Caatinga biome. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the three-banded armadillo could become extinct in another 50 years.
The campaign was worldwide and the critter and its home, which up until now had been unknown to most people, including scientists, won public sympathy, scoring a goal for Conservation! At last the Caatinga and its most emblematic representative won the attention of the world after silently suffering the impacts of deforestation and environmental degradation for decades.
As the initiative took shape, the Caatinga Association, The Nature Conservancy, the Anteater, Sloth & Armadillo Specialist Group (ASASG), and the IUCN, drew up a long-term plan to save the Tolypeutes tricinctus from extinction, protect the rich biodiversity of the biome, and ensure the maintenance of environmental services provided by forests. All four environmental organizations have long been working for the protection of the Caatinga.
The campaign – called the three-banded armadillo and the 2014 FIFA World Cup - scoring a goal for sustainability - was officially presented in October of 2012 shortly after the announcement that the species had been chosen as the mascot for the FIFA World Cup that will take place in Brazil. The ten-year initiative will provide a set of actions to increase knowledge about the species and the biomes it inhabits, namely the Caatinga and the Cerrado (the latter is Brazil´s Central Savannas). Other objectives include creating protected areas and ecological corridors where the species can be studied and protected, making the three-banded armadillo and its natural habit more widely known, and promoting environmental education to raise awareness.
According to Rodrigo Castro, a biologist and executive secretary of the Associação Caatinga, the plan is to seek the support of all the World Cup sponsors. Continental Tires was the first company to commit. Their nearly US$ 44,000 contribution allowed for the project´s research phase to begin; the study will look at the species distribution and its estimated population, and it will also map the animal´s genetic information and chart the areas where it faces the greatest risk.
"The three-banded armadillo is a species little known to science. There is not much information available, and that is one of the main difficulties in assuring their protection", says Castro. According to him, at least 30 % of the Tolypeutes tricinctus population disappeared between 2000 and 2010. The significant decline explains why the species´ classification went from “vulnerable" to "endangered" in the IUCN Red List, which highlights the main threats to the species as hunting, urbanization and the accelerated deforestation of the Caatinga due to agricultural, ranching and logging activities.
A second phase of the mapping currently underway will support the call for new Conservation Units and the development of conservation efforts starting at the Serra das Almas Nature Preserve, in the state of Ceará. Additionally, the work will back the implementation of an environmental education strategy in local communities to help ensure the sustainability of the project.
The initiative addresses the strategies under the three United Nation Conventions, specifically Biological Diversity, Climate Change and the Convention to Combat Desertification, and follows IUCN and the Brazilian Government guidelines for the protection of endangered species. Moreover, the project contributes directly to the Caatinga and Cerrado biodiversity conservation goals established by the Brazilian Government.
"We hope that both citizens and the private sector become aware of the importance of this species and of the biomes where it lives, recognizing the need to protect them. It is important to keep in mind that everyone gains with their protection. That is the message that the World Cup in Brazil will help us disseminate", concludes João Campari, director of the Conservancy´s Atlantic Forest and Central Savannas conservation program in Brazil.
Scientific Name: Tolypeutes tricinctus
Tolypeutes tricinctus is the smallest, the least known and the only armadillo species endemic to Brazil, where it lives in the Cerrado and Caatinga biomes. It is also the armadillo species facing the most threat and the most sensitive to changes in the environment. In average, the three-banded armadillo measures approximately 20 inches and weighs about 2.2 pounds. It has survived throughout its 140 million years of evolution thanks to its ability to make itself into a ball when threatened. It does that by bending its shell, which is formed by three flexible bands. That capability protects it from predators, such as the jaguar, but does nothing to protect it from humans. That is why hunting is the main threat to the survival of the species, followed by habit change and destruction.