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The Olympic Mascots Represent All the Animals Brazil Has Displaced

The dark truth about Brazil's happy mascots.

Compared to the mascots of Olympic Games past (looking at you, London), Brazil's kawaii chimaera, Vinicius and Tom, are surprisingly cute.

"I am the Olympic Games mascot, a mixture of all the Brazilian animals," says Vinicius. "I was born out of the explosion of joy that happened when they announced that Rio would host the Olympic Games."

To spectators, the sentiment behind their conception should be heartwarming. Brazil is home to the most biologically diverse places on Earth. The Amazon, which includes one of the largest intact rainforests in the world, features a tenth of all species known to man. Between its vibrant jungles, wetlands, savannahs, and deserts, the country is arguably the ecological gem of South America.

Image: Rio 2016

But there's another way to interpret the mascots' symbolism: Since Rio de Janeiro was selected to host the 2016 Games, Brazil's government has bulldozed nature preserves, pursued hydroelectric dam building in the Amazon, and even slaughtered a beloved jaguar.

Vinicius and Tom are mashups of Brazil's iconic species, but they're also macabre reminders of the environmental sacrifices made for gold and glory—aspects of the Games visitors are unlikely to ever see.

For an event touted as the greenest Olympics in all of history, Brazilian officials are in over their heads (in toxic sludge). Some athletes are now forced to sail through a literal bay of shit, and sanitation experts beg that people stay out of the water. Just days before the opening ceremony, it was revealed that authorities had misrepresented government data on Rio de Janeiro's air quality, which is three times higher than World Health Organization limits.

But for starters, in November of last year, Olympic officials demolished the Marapendi nature preserve in Barra da Tijuca to make way for a new 18-hole golf course. Its construction was met by an outcry from conservationists and activists who felt it might devastate local species. "Rio City Hall is basically killing this reserve... expelling alligator species, snakes, birds," protestor Lucas Duraes told NPR.

Capybara. Image: Flickr/Dagget2

The clear-cut preserve was once part of the Atlantic Forest, whose species richness is comparable to that of the Amazon. And despite assurances from Mayor Eduardo Paes that no "environmental crime is being committed," scores of now displaced animals, such as capybaras, three-toed sloths, monkeys, and caimans, are returning to the artificial landscape that was once their home. Olympic officials have even arranged for five biologists to remove caimans, a type of crocodilian similar to alligators, that get too close to athletes and match-goers.

At the same time, deep in the Amazon jungle, one of Brazil's most controversial environmental offenses, the Tapajós hydroelectric dam project, plowed forward. While not a sports venue, or an Olympic village, the dams were, in part, a response to the energy needs required to host the Games. Although hydropower is theoretically cleaner than oil and natural gas, the Tapajós dam will inevitably deforest large swaths of pristine rainforest.

Environmentalists say the hydroelectric dams will block the last unobstructed tributary in the Amazon. Thousands of of square miles of land will be flooded during its construction, endangering both animals and indigenous people. After the project's completion, surveys estimate, water quality will suffer, habitat will be degraded, and more development will eventually be drawn to the area.

Aerial view of the Amazon River. Image: Flickr/CIAT

And how could anyone forget the killing of Juma the jaguar—a living, breathing mascot of the Olympics who was shot during a torch-lighting ceremony in Manaus. According to government reports, Juma had escaped her handlers, and was killed out of self defense. But watchdog groups said her presence at the event was illegal to begin with. Jaguars are a species threatened by extinction, and forcing one to parade before a crowd was described by animal welfare advocates as unnecessarily cruel.

Spokespeople for the Olympics later apologized for the animal's death. "We made a mistake in permitting the Olympic torch, a symbol of peace and unity, to be exhibited alongside a chained wild animal. This image goes against our beliefs and our values. We guarantee that there will be no more such incidents at Rio 2016."

By now, the Brazilian government seems well aware of its environmental record, and is apparently unwilling to invest in meaningful change. The Olympics may bring an immediate boost to the country's economy, but long after the torch has gone out and the stadiums have crumbled, what will be left over?

Maybe then, nature will be able to reclaim what it has lost.