RIO DE JANEIRO - Every Olympics needs a strong mascot.
But for the 2016 Summer Games, the two animals leading the pack are in a rather weak position. Each of the two primates being considered to become the face of Brazil's first-ever Olympics is in risk of extinction: the mico-leão-dourado (golden lion tamarin) and muriqui are the names of two natives species endemic to the Atlantic Forest, a long strip of tropical and subtropical forest covering virtually the entire Brazilian coast, north to south.
Up to now, mico-leão-dourado, a kind of pop-star within Brazilian fauna, is leading the preferences. It has become well-known thanks to 20 years of publicity that made its red mane famous around the world.
“This animal is the face of success. It has a beautiful story, of engaging with society. People from all the world come here just to see it," says Luís Paulo Ferraz, CEO at the NPO Associação do Mico-Leão-Dourado (Golden Lion Tamarin Association), which heads the campaign to save the little monkey. “Besides, mico-leão-dourado has the color of gold medal.”
Awareness efforts have increased a previous population of 200 animals to the current 1,700. Part of it is due to protection and the recovering Atlantic Forest.
In the other corner is muriqui, the largest primate on the South American continent. It has a strong team of supporters, including popular singers like Gilberto Gil and Chico Buarque, who are featured in a slick new video made for the campaign, led by Instituto Ecoatlântica.
"Muriqui is like the panda in China,” declares Russell Mittermeier, president of Conservação Internacional and a specialist on primates.
Mittermeier and the NPO are helping to globalize the campaign for muriqui, which is supported by Rio's regional goverment as well.
"It has fewer chances because it is not a famous animal. Mico is also at risk, but muriqui is in much higher danger,” says Mittermeier. Estimates are that only 160 muriquis live in Rio de Janeiro state now.
In spite of the campaigns, other species may be chosen instead of the two primates. The tatu-bola, another species in serious danger of extinction, is in the running as well. Proposals for the official mascot will come from the 15 communication agencies invited by the Olympic committee to offer their ideas. Ultimately, the muriqui and mico-leão will have to win the hearts not only of conservationists, but also public relations experts.