A stray dog walks on a road in Lucknow, in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Picture: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

New Delhi - A team of scientists in India is investigating why packs of stray dogs in villages near the north Indian town of Sitapur have mysteriously started killing children.

In just a week, six children between 5 and 12-years-old were killed by snarling strays, while more than two dozen others have been injured in attacks.

The attacks have terrorized the town and, according to local reports, school attendance has dropped and villagers in the town say they believe the killer beasts are hyenas, not dogs. Vigilante dog-catching squads have started shooting and strangling animals, while local authorities have recruited policemen, municipal workers and a team of expert monkey catchers to apprehend the strays.

The World Wildlife Fund and the Indian Veterinary Research Institute have sent teams to figure out what has turned the dogs into child killers.

"We're here to find out how and why did the dogs turn violent and started attacking people," Dr. Dinesh Chandra from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute told the ANI news agency.

Feral dogs are a common sight in India, though attitudes towards them vary. Some communities feed strays and take them to the vet, while in many places dogs are beaten and chased away.

Sabir Ali, whose 10-year-old nephew Kasim died in a dog attack, said that the killer dogs were not ordinary strays. "In shape and size, the dogs that attacked my nephew were different from normal street dogs," he told the Indian Express.

One of the recent deaths was of 7-year-old girl named Gita who had gone to the field to pick mangoes. "They were biting the girl on her neck, thighs and stomach," said local resident Ram Kripal to the Indian Express. "They were even eating the meat while she was still alive. I am sure if we had reached 5-10 minutes later, we would not have even found the body," he said.

In Sitapur, nobody seems to know quite why the dogs have started attacking children, though there are rumors that it all started after an illegal slaughterhouse in the area was closed down, leaving the dogs with no food. A total of 12 children have died in dog attacks since November.

Sitapur's magistrate, Harshdeo Pandey, told the Associated Press that he had warned villagers not to let children outside to play until all the dogs were caught. Many primary and junior high schools have been closed temporarily.

Some of the more docile local dogs have been collared by concerned residents to prevent the dog-catchers from killing them.