Thirst, sweat, and heat— Thar Desert reminds one of a lot of things. But the best part of the desert is its peacocks. Their vibrant blue and green colours beautify the blazing desert. This bird is a part of life of the indigenous people and they treat it like family. The locals consider feeding peacocks a religious obligation, and the bird is often found near human settlements, dancing and fanning its feathers. Children play with them and folk singers sing songs about them. In fact, no Sindhi wedding is complete without a popular prothalamion, which praises the peacock’s dance. This bird has a lot of influence on the culture and art of Sindh and a beautiful woman is often compared to a peacock. Among these hundreds of folklore references, the Great Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai’s verse, “The lovely peacocks are all dead, not one swan remains,” is most relevant to the current status of peacocks in Thar.

Thar’s most beloved bird is subject to frequent outbreaks of Newcastle disease, which is locally known as ranikhet. This disease is a concern for birds all around the world including Pakistan. It is common in poultry but its worst victims have been the peacocks of Thar. The disease is viral, so there is no cure for it, and it can only be prevented. Secondary infections caused by the disease are treatable, but in a lot of cases Thari peacocks don’t reach that stage. It basically has three stages—respiratory, digestive, and nervous— from which the bird can only be saved in the first two, while the final stage is lethal for the bird. The initial symptom for this disease is weakness in the bird and later on nasal discharge and swollen eyes are observed. These initial symptoms were observed by many Thar residents in 2011 when the disease became fatal to hundreds of peacocks in the region. In 2017, local media reported that some of the peacocks, which were taken in protection by the Wildlife Department when the disease broke out, had been released in the wild as the danger of the disease had subsided. However, hundreds of peacocks died again the next year, in 2018, due to ranikhet disease.

This is a worrying aspect for Pakistan in many ways. First of all, it brings extreme grief to the indigenous population of Thar, which treats this bird like a family member. Secondly, it is affecting the biodiversity of Pakistan and, likewise, the ecosystem of the region. Thirdly, it is a loss of economic opportunity as Thar is a tourist destination within Sindh, and these wild peacocks are quite an attraction in the area.

Furthermore, climate change may have a role in the worsening of the outbreak of this disease. It is common knowledge that Thar has been a subject to spells of droughts, and a lack of fresh drinking water. Most of the time people only have dirty water to drink. Their ultimate source of drinkable water is streams filled by monsoon rain, which has been scanty over the years due to climate change. This combined with a lack of infrastructure leaves the Thari people with either no water at all, or dirty water. This water crisis worsens the condition of peacocks suffering from Newcastle disease as they need a constant supply of fresh drinking water. Therefore, many peacocks that can be saved simply die, either due to dehydration or because of dirty water consumption.

Additionally, many people in this country argue that caring about the life of animals or birds isn't important when people suffer from hunger and poverty, especially in areas like Thar. Though it is true that humans in this country have their problems, the contributions of animals or birds to society cannot be ignored. In this case, peacocks protect the human population of Thar from poisonous snakes, which can otherwise cause serious health issues. The point here is that all the fauna found in this world has a certain role to play, which creates a balanced ecosystem with sufficient food, oxygen and pleasant weather that humans can enjoy. Therefore, protection of wildlife is a very important task and it must be taken seriously.

However, the Sindh Wildlife Department has been frequently criticized by the media for not being serious enough about protecting the life of this beautiful bird. The department has not produced accurate data on the deaths of peacocks caused by Newcastle disease, and has no immunization policy. Though the Wildlife Department has not shown its best performance, it is unfair to blame it entirely. The Department lacks both human and material resources to cope with the outbreak of the disease. At the same time, it has no capacity to deal with the emerging challenge of climate change.

To solve some of these problems, a census of the peacock population in the region needs to be conducted. To date there is no exact record of the number of peacocks in the region, there are just some estimates. India recently conducted a peacock census on its side of the Thar Desert and Pakistan should do the same. Secondly, there is a need to develop an effective immunization programme and provide fresh drinking water to peacocks in the region. Thirdly, awareness and advocacy efforts need to be increased to protect the peacocks of Thar. Finally, the country needs to realize the threats of climate change and needs to support a sustainable development agenda. Climate change might not be the cause of this issue, but it definitely is a facilitator of conditions that kill peacocks.

In a nutshell, the solution to this problem is quite simple, but the main issue is of policy priorities and availability of resources. Fortunately, the peacocks of Thar are not threatened by extinction, but these constant outbreaks of Newcastle disease is an alarming situation and needs immediate attention. Realizing the importance of peacocks, wildlife and the ecosystem in general can be a new beginning for this country. For this, individuals and NGOs need to work together to create awareness and advocate a policy change. Then hopefully, the peacocks will live and the swans will swim, and the singers will sing their sweet songs celebrating nature.

Anza Abbasi is a NUST graduate and a freelance columnist with a special interest in Public Policy.