SAO PAULO – Fuleco, the official mascot of the World Cup, is cute and cuddly and wears the kind of confident smile you might expect from a cartoon figure that will be part of soccer's most important showpiece.
Sadly, he also represents a species on the verge of extinction and caught in the middle of a conservation battle involving soccer's world governing body FIFA and outraged environmentalists.
Fuleco is based upon the rare Brazilian three-banded armadillo and might be the most perfect choice as World Cup mascot in tournament history, given that the animal's unique defense system to protect itself from predators is by rolling itself up into a ball. But while millions of Fuleco soft toys are being sold in Brazil and beyond, all in packaging embossed with the tightly protected FIFA trademark, the survival numbers of the real-life animal are dwindling fast.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has placed the species, officially known as Tolypeutes tricinctus on its "red list" of vulnerable creatures as a result of a declining population caused by hunting and habitat destruction in the Caatinga, a forest region in the northeast Brazil that the armadillo primarily calls home.
"Ironically, the same property that makes it so suitable as the figurehead of the World Cup also makes it easy to bag up and barbeque," conservation author Henry Nicholls wrote in the Guardian newspaper.
The aesthetically appealing quirk of the armadillo's three bands is another factor that weighs against it, according to zoologist Clint Lusardi of the San Diego Zoo.
"Because of their unusual look there is a lot of poaching and the armadillos get used to make purses or ashtrays," Lusardi told Yahoo Sports in a telephone interview.
"I really hope the World Cup will help. Anything like a big event that can bring light on an animal that people might not know much about, that is what I live for. It really brings attention, people get educated about it and the more people know about an animal the more they want to help."
The fight to protect the three-banded armadillo is being led in Brazil by biologist Rodrigo Castro – the man who proposed its use as World Cup mascot to FIFA two years ago. That effort was successful and Fuleco – a combination of the words futbol and ecologia (ecology) was born.
"But while people know more about the armadillo now we have not seen much money come from it," Castro said. "The cost of a campaign to save the species is significant. FIFA has an opportunity to do something incredible here, for the first time it can be involved in saving a species from extinction as part of its World Cup legacy."
Castro and other environmentalists have issued proposals to FIFA for a system that would see a small portion of revenue accrued from Fuleco merchandise sales diverted to a conservation fund. However, nothing has been forthcoming so far, save for $45,000 donated from tournament sponsor Continental Tires.
When the World Cup kicks off in Sao Paulo on Thursday, Fuleco will be part of the lavish Opening Ceremony staged at Arena Corinthians before the host nation plays Croatia. Hopefully for the Brazilian three-banded armadillo, the tournament can be a bright new beginning rather than the beginning of the end.