A Pakistani villager carries an ailing peacock at Buphohar village in Thar desert in Sindh province last week. Dozens of wild peacocks have died suddenly in Pakistan, prompting experts to fear an outbreak of the highly contagious Newcastle disease. (ASIF HASSAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

The wild peacocks of Pakistan were dying in droves. Was the government covering it up?

That was the question Pakistanis were raising last week as reports persisted from the Thar desert area of southern Sindh province about peacocks whirling themselves to death in mad dances that appeared to have no earthly explanation.

By midweek, more than 120 peacock deaths had been reported — and the toll would keep rising — but the government would only acknowledge that 11 peacocks had died. Newspapers carried photos of children carrying corpses of the magnificently plumed fowl.

It turned out that the answer to the strange deaths was relatively simple: The peafowl were suffering from Newcastle disease, a contagious viral infection that causes dehydration, affects the brain and often causes the birds to spin.

The disease — known as Ranikhet in Pakistan — hit Thar and six other districts in Sindh. Thar alone is estimated to have 70,000 peacocks.

The peacock is wild in the province. Some poor villagers, including members of the Hindu community, keep the birds for their valuable feathers.

The often-persecuted Hindu minority, estimated at 2 percent of the nation’s 180 million population, is mainly clustered in Sindh. Hindus consider the peacock sacred because of its association with several deities, and killing a peacock is a sin, according to Kenia Nagpal, a Hindu leader in Karachi.

“We have a respect for this bird as well as a duty,” he said. “Poor people raise it for economic reasons, but they are not greedy people.”

Poaching could account for some of the deaths, said Tahir Qureshi, a Karachi-based adviser to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, an environmental group. He expressed doubt that the media’s numbers are accurate but added: “The number of peacocks has been definitely decreasing.”

The outbreak may have started in India, where the peacock is the national bird. In mid-July, some Indian media outlets began reporting on unusually high numbers of mysterious peacock deaths.

Saeed Akhtar Baloch, Sindh’s chief wildlife conservator, said officials began tracking reports of peacock deaths in Pakistan on July 18 but found only a handful of dead birds. He said the outbreak originated in poultry.

“It is almost under control,” Baloch said in an interview. “We have a lot of doctors working on the case.”

Sindh Wildlife Minister Daya Ram Essarani accused the media of exaggerating the numbers and said in a news release that more than 6,000 peacocks have been vaccinated and were recovering.

But villagers challenged the claims, and veterinarians at Sindh Agriculture University criticized the provincial government’s response.

“The Sindh Wildlife Department does not have the means to control the disease immediately,” they said in a report to university officials.

“Most of the dying peacocks can be saved if they are given the medicines on time,” the veterinarians added.

But as the week went on, the toll rose. Pakistan’s Geo television network put it at 167 deaths over 24 days.

Muhammad Babar Hussain, founder of the blog Pakistan Weather Portal, cited drought conditions and shortages of food sources for peacocks as factors behind the heavy impact of Newcastle disease. He said a 2003 outbreak was stemmed by quick action by authorities.