A rare Cuban crocodile was named ambassador for the environment at Rome's zoo on Wednesday, days before the sharp-toothed creature and Pope Benedict XVI travel to Cuba.
In a colorful ceremony in front of children waving Cuban, Italian and Vatican flags, the head of Rome's Bio Park zoo, Paolo Giuntarelli, said the 60 centimeter (two foot) croc was also the ambassador "of peace and solidarity".
The "crocodylus rhombifer" was captured by an Italian during a trip to Cuba and smuggled into Italy inside a sock hidden in a suitcase in 2011, but was confiscated by officials and ended up finding sanctuary at the zoo.
The two-year-old reptile will be returned to his home in Cuba as a symbolic gesture "to show that man should stop devastating nature", Giuntarelli said.
In January, the small crocodile travelled to the Vatican to meet a bemused pope, who places particular importance on supporting and defending nature.
The Cuban crocodile is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) endangered species list: its population has dropped by 80 percent and it only survives on a small area of the island.
Benedict XVI will depart for a trip to Mexico and Cuba on March 26, and the crocodile will set off for Cuba on the day the pontiff's journey begins.
"I hope that the crocodile has a good journey," said Giovanni Becciu, former Vatican diplomatic representative to Cuba, who attended the ceremony.
"I'm sure the people of such a magical and enchanted island will give as warm a welcome to the crocodile" as they will to the pope, he said.
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