Over the next several weeks, hundreds of millions of people around the world will sit and cheer in front of their televisions and computer screens as the 2014 FIFA World Cup takes place in Brazil. Some of the world's top athletes will be on display during the month-long soccer competition that runs from June 12 through July 13 — and so will the World Cup mascot, a Brazilian three-banded armadillo named Fuleco.
Over the course of the World Cup, it seems obvious that more people will see Fuleco than will see actual Brazilian three-banded armadillos. The rare animals, which live only in western Brazil, were thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in a few remote locations in the 1990s. Today they are considered vulnerable to extinction, mostly due to habitat loss.
When FIFA announced Fuleco back in 2012, the organization said the mascot represented the World's Cup's lofty environmental goals. In fact the mascot's name is a play on the words Futebol (football) and Ecologia (Ecology). "One of the key objectives through the 2014 World Cup is to use the event as a platform to communicate the importance of the environment and ecology," FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke said at the time. "We are glad to be able to do so with the help of a mascot who I’m sure will be much-loved."
Unfortunately, FIFA's promise to make this year's competition the greenest World Cup to date hasn't necessarily lived up to reality. Brazil, which will also host the 2016 Olympics, has razed critical rain forests to make way for a new $325 million stadium. And it has been said that travel for the month-long World Cup will be the equivalent of driving half a million cars around for an entire year.
That brings us back to Fuleco. A team of scientists recently called for FIFA to do more to protect the Brazilian three-banded armadillo. Specifically, they have called for FIFA to protect 1,000 hectares (about 4 square miles) of the armadillo's critical habitat in the Caatinga ecosystem for every goal scored over the course of the World Cup. "Protecting the remaining Caatinga is extremely urgent," José Alves Siqueira of the Federal University of the Valley of São Francisco said in a news release in May. "We want the choice of one of the Caatinga's most iconic species as the World Cup mascot to be more than just a symbolic one."
The move, if it actually happens, can't come fast enough for Fuleco's real-world cousins. Populations for this rare species — one of only two armadillo species that can roll into a complete ball — have dropped by as much as 30 percent over the past decade. That's not much to cheer about.
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