by Rene Quenallata Paredes
LA PAZ, March 29 (Xinhua) -- Bolivia's traffic "zebras," volunteer wardens in zebra costume, have been catapulted to global Internet stardom.
For years, the zebras, who get the name from the striped black-and-white pedestrian crosswalks that they protect from oncoming traffic, have toiled in relative obscurity, except for winning China's Urban Innovation award in 2016.
Still, the furry mascots were little known outside Bolivia's capital La Paz, where they help pedestrians, especially kids and the elderly, safely make it to the other side of the street by waving down drivers and prancing around.
It was not until U.S. talk show host John Oliver featured the zebras on his program "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver" in mid-March that videos of the zebras in action went viral.
Oliver quipped that any difficult situation -- such as attempting to cross the street in a major Latin American capital or watching Donald Trump be sworn in as the U.S. president -- could be instantly improved by adding one of La Paz's zebras. Soon the hashtag #JustAddZebras was trending on Twitter.
To thank him for the compliment, La Paz has invited Oliver to the city and learn more about its Urban Educators program, which uses the zebras to teach more than just traffic civility.
"We made a video, called 'Wonder City,' thanking him for having promoted the Urban Educators program and inviting him to La Paz, so he can be zebra for a day, so he can experience firsthand how to make a better city and be a better person, which is our program's goal," La Paz Secretary of Education and Civic Culture Sergio Caballero told Xinhua.
Asked whether the zebras in fact improve potentially fraught or complex situations, Caballero responded with an emphatic "Yes."
Residents, even drivers in a hurry to get somewhere, respond to the zebras' kindness and charisma, he said.
"They make everything better, the hectic life of La Paz stops being indifferent and sometimes they even get you to smile," said Caballero.
The zebras were first introduced to the streets of La Paz in November 2001, and some 15 years later the program not only helps pedestrians, but also the volunteers, who are often unemployed young people of troubled backgrounds.
Kathia Salazar, a city councillor who as head of the program goes by the name "Zebra Mom," believes the zebras help teach residents that "how you behave does matter."
A year before deploying the zebras, the city tried a different strategy, by sending out an army of mimes. But residents never warmed to them.
"To get people to respect the pedestrian crosswalk, the answer was a zebra capable of confronting the demons of the big city: a unionized public transport that did not respect stops or signs," said Salazar.
The zebra campaign began with 24 youngsters, most of whom were eking out a living as shoeshine boys or street vendors.
Today there are 300 zebras and the campaign has won international recognition, including the Urban Innovation award from China's southern city of Guangzhou.
The award came with a prize of 20,000 U.S. dollars that the city has earmarked to help build the Zebra House for the city's much-beloved army of educators.