- The Brazilian three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus), endemic to the semiarid dry forests of northeastern Brazil, is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and threatened by habitat loss and hunting.
- A new initiative to study the Brazilian three-banded armadillo has begun in the Chapada Diamantina region in the state of Bahia, aiming to estimate the species’ population trends through long-term monitoring and citizen science in the village of Sumidouro.
- Conservationists are beginning to see encouraging results that point to the recovery of the armadillo population thanks to effective community-based conservation — a strategy that could prove helpful at larger scales.
Under the searing rays of the afternoon sun, Rodolfo Assis Magalhães and his team silently scour the fields that border the forest. Their target, the charismatic Brazilian three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus), won’t be easy to catch. The trick is throwing a T-shirt over the animal before it can escape through a sharp jungle of cacti, serrated shrubs and thorn-tipped trees that make any pursuit impossible, says Magalhães, a doctoral student at the Federal University of Minas Gerais.
The chase is part of a new project in the village of Sumidouro in northeastern Brazil that aims to understand trends in the armadillo population using long-term monitoring and to promote conservation through citizen science. Despite a complicated past with the species, the community has come to embrace the armadillo’s protection, providing vital support to the project.
Rolling toward extinction
Endemic to Brazil, the Brazilian three-banded armadillo is a species native to the Caatinga, a semiarid dry forest ecosystem in the country’s northeast, but it can also be found in the savannas of the Cerrado. Feeding on termites and ants, the armadillo has an excellent sense of smell as it teeters on its enormous claws, combing the landscape in search of its prey.
In Portuguese, the species is known as the tatu-bola, or the “ball armadillo” — as it rolls itself into a complete ball when threatened, a defense that bewilders and discourages smaller predators. Its shell, though, offers no protection against its only natural predator, the jaguar, or against humans.
Listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, the three-banded armadillo is threatened by several factors. Land degradation in the Caatinga driven by cattle ranching, slash-and-burn agriculture, cotton cultivation and timber and charcoal extraction has reduced the armadillo’s habitat by about half of its original forest cover. Today, less than 8 % of the biome is formally protected under the Brazilian national nature reserve legislation, and only 1.3% receives full legal protection.
But the greatest threat to the species is overhunting. Ironically, the armadillo’s unique defense mechanism of rolling itself into a ball when threatened makes it a prime target for hunters, who capture and sell it. Although subsistence hunting has always been a part of rural life in this semiarid region and is often practiced sustainably, a complex set of socio-economic drivers, including growing human populations, endemic poverty and food insecurity, have contributed to the decimation of the Caatinga’s wildlife, with the Brazilian three-banded armadillo among the species that have been hardest hit.
For most of the latter half of the 20th century, many in the scientific community believed the Brazilian three-banded armadillo had already been hunted to extinction. However, its unexpected rediscovery in the late 1980s proved the species had been able to persist in low densities against the odds. The armadillo further gained visibility when a cuddly representation of the species was selected as the official mascot of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, symbolizing Brazil’s commitment to preserving its rich biodiversity. Despite its newfound fame, conservation shortcomings and the administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro, which undermined environmental protection, have not improved the prospects for the three-banded armadillo, which has lost about 50% of its population in the last 30 years. But a community that has come to embrace the armadillo’s conservation might offer the species a better future.
It takes a village to protect an armadillo
Nestled in the rugged terrain of Bahia’s Chapada Diamantina mountains, in northeastern Brazil, the remote village of Sumidouro is home to a little more than 200 people. Despite its size, Sumidouro is the first place to use citizen science and community-based conservation to protect the Brazilian three-banded armadillo.
“We first started a monitoring program for the armadillo in the village as part of a general biodiversity survey for the environmental licensing of a wind farm,” says Magalhães, lead researcher of the armadillo project, which is supported by the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE species program. “But then I realized this was a fantastic opportunity to do something more for this charismatic species.”
Since the project’s inception, the community has played a crucial role in collecting valuable data on the armadillo species in Sumidouro. Local field assistants monitor the animal in and around agricultural lands and forest fragments while village residents report armadillo sightings to the project’s database, providing photos and GPS coordinates. Combining this data with a statistical technique known as occupancy modeling allows the researchers to build a comprehensive picture of the armadillo’s occurrence and movements. “There is actually relatively little knowledge of how this species utilizes habitat in human-modified landscapes, yet this kind of data is essential for effectively conserving this species,” says Flavio Rodrigues, professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais and supervisor of the project.
The community’s deeply rooted environmental awareness has fostered the project. “We’ve got a very favorable situation for conservation,” Magalhães tells Mongabay. “Honestly, I don’t know if we could do even half of what we’ve done without these conditions, we’ve been fortunate to have the cooperation of the wind farms and their employees, the association of rural producers, and the citizens themselves.”
A serendipitous sanctuary
The village of Sumidouro hasn’t always been a safe place for the Brazilian three-banded armadillo. Until recently, the species was sometimes on the menu and hunted opportunistically by locals for its meat. “When hunting was still practiced in the area, this animal was very endangered,” says Cosme da Rocha, field assistant for the project.
In 2009, a renewable energy developer arrived on the outskirts of the village and built three wind farms, radically changing local infrastructure. While the impact of wind farms on biodiversity and traditional communities in Brazil remains a controversial topic, in the case of Sumidouro, there have been benefits to biodiversity, albeit indirectly, according to Magalhães. New employment opportunities have improved residents’ living standards, reducing reliance on slash-and-burn agriculture in the Caatinga and curbing habitat loss. With the wind farms also came more police. Heightened law enforcement discouraged illegal hunting, which resulted in more protection for the armadillo.
In the mid 2010s, researchers from the Federal University of Minas Gerais arrived in the village to run general biodiversity surveys and promote local biodiversity conservation through lectures, workshops and informal conversations with residents. By leveraging the armadillo’s cultural significance as a FIFA mascot and a trickster figure in local folklore, the education program focused on raising awareness around what’s threatening the armadillo and the importance of its conservation as a flagship species for the Caatinga. A team of local field assistants, who were already familiar with the species and its habits, were hired to monitor the armadillo population in the surroundings of the village to collect data.
“Some of the oldest cave paintings in the Americas can be found in the northeast of Brazil and many depict armadillos, so the association between humans and armadillos clearly dates back to ancient times,” says Mariella Superina, chair of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Anteater, Sloth and Armadillo Specialist Group. “Through recognizing and celebrating the cultural importance of armadillos, we foster community stewardship and involvement in species conservation efforts, and conservation can only ever be successful if the local communities are involved and actively participate, so I applaud the initiative in Sumidouro.”
The armadillo has become a symbol of local pride in Sumidouro. “We really didn’t have much understanding about the armadillo and its importance before, but we are conscious now of preserving the fauna and flora of the area,” says Claudimiro Souza, president of the association of local rural producers. “We gain so much more by preserving this animal than by killing it. That´s why we’ve embraced the cause and hope it will bring visibility to our community.”
Bouncing back from the brink
More than a decade after Sumidouro’s economic shift, the reduction in hunting pressures has given the armadillo much-needed respite. The researchers are beginning to see signs suggesting the species is on the road to recovery. “Nowadays it’s getting much easier to find,” says da Rocha. “The decrease in hunting is paying off. We’ve seen the armadillo multiplying over time.”
According to the project findings, the armadillo seems indeed to be widespread in Sumidouro. “What our research shows is the potential that this species has to not only survive in human-modified environments but even to become common, provided that hunting and habitat loss are tackled through the inclusion of local communities in conservation,” says Magalhães.
The community-focused approach to conservation in Sumidouro could become a model for protecting the Brazilian three-banded armadillo and other threatened species of the Caatinga such as the gray brocket deer, the rock cavy, and the northern tigrina. “Under the right conditions, we think that this kind of project could be replicated in other areas where the species is present,” says Rodrigues. “Now, we need to find more Sumidouros.”
Magalhães, R.A., Massara, R.L., de Oliveira, F.S. et al. The Brazilian three-banded armadillo is widely distributed in a human-modified landscape in northeastern Brazil. Mamm Res (2022) doi: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13364-022-00651-5#citeas
Banner image: The three-banded armadillo is seeing a surge in population due to conservation efforts in Bahia, Brazil. Image courtesy of Liana Sena.