As the World Cup launches in South Africa this week, conservationists fear that gamblers looking for a little extra luck will turn to a source those of us in the West might not expect: the practice of smoking vulture brains.

The custom stems from the traditional medicine known in South Africa as muti. The vulture brains are dried, ground up and then smoked in cigarettes which supposedly give the users visions of the future. In addition to dreams of winning lotto numbers or sports teams, practitioners say the practice can give users an edge on taking tests or help their business attract more clients. A tiny vial of vulture brains sells for around $6.50, according to an article from AFP.

Seven of the nine vulture species found in South Africa are endangered in that country, including the bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus) and the cape vulture (Gyps coprotheres), the latter of which, according to the Cape Vulture Conservation Project, has only about 380 breeding pairs left in the country. (Both species have stronger populations in some other countries.) Vultures play an important role in the ecosystem, helping to control disease and vermin by eating carrion. (Read our previous coverage of vultures in India, where 99.9 percent of the eco-essential scavengers have died off in the last two decades.)

Mark Anderson, executive director of BirdLife South Africa, said in a prepared release that South African vultures are declining due to lack of food, poisoning by poachers, and collisions with electricity power lines. "The harvesting of the bird's heads by followers of muti magic is an additional threat these birds can't endure," he said. Wildlife groups estimate that at least 300 vultures are killed annually for muti, an unsustainable number that could drive vultures into extinction in the country in the next decade.

Photo: Bearded vulture, via Wikipedia