It was a happy day for Kaavan, an overweight 36-year-old bull elephant from Pakistan, as he landed in Cambodia early this week. He was greeted by American pop singer Cher who was instrumental to his freedom.
Kaavan became known as the “world’s loneliest elephant” after his partner Saheli, who lived with him, died in 2012. He has spent 35 years in shackles at Islamabad’s Marghazar Zoo, a run-down institution that served as his home until a global uproar from animal rights groups prompted a petition for him to be moved from the zoo.
His cause was magnified when Cher started a social media campaign to secure his release. It has taken Cher, who has long been known as an animal lover, and the Four Paws International four long years to free Kaavan from Pakistan and be moved to a much safer and more conducive place where the mighty elephant can roam unshackled.
But the process didn’t just involve documents and permits. Transferring Kaavan to a new home also entailed preparing him for such. Animal experts spent weeks training the elephant to calmly enter and exit his custom-built crate. The trainers used music to soothe Kaavan’s anxiety, something Cher has been happy to help with.
Expert veterinarian Amir Khalil said the elephant did not appear to be stressed during the seven-hour flight from Pakistan to Cambodia. He even jokingly added that Kaavan showed signs of a “frequent flier” and seemingly enjoying the ride to his new life.
Cher, who co-founded the international charity Free the Wild, waited for Kaavan at the Siem Reap International Airport. With a black face mask and a white flower, Cher greeted Kaavan through an opening at the base of his crate.
“I am so proud he is here,” Cher told AFP. “He’s going to be really happy here.”
Cambodia’s deputy environment minister, Neth Pheaktra, expressed full support in Kaavan’s wellbeing in the country. “Cambodia is pleased to welcome Kaavan. No longer will he be the world’s loneliest elephant. We expect to breed Kaavan with local elephants – this is an effort to conserve the genetic fold.”
Kaavan was transported from Siem Reap to a wildlife sanctuary in Oddar Meanchey province. About 600 elephants welcomed him, along with a “juicy fruitcake,” said a Cambodian authority.
Kaavan was originally a gift to Pakistan by Sri Lanka in 1985, when the elephant was just a baby.
First friend in eight years
Despite being alone for years, Kaavan easily made friends with other elephants at Kulen Prom Tep Wildlife Sanctuary. He was seen touching trucks with another elephant, said Four Paws. This was his first ever contact with another elephant in eight years.
Once Kaavan has fully adjusted to his new home, he will be released into the wider sanctuary. He will be allowed to roam free with three other female elephants.
His emotional journey isn’t the end of decades of animal rights campaign in Pakistan and around the world. It is hopefully the beginning of more successful rescue efforts for wild animals kept in unfavorable conditions.
In May this year, a Pakistani judge ordered that all the animals at the zoo be removed.
Four Paws, along with Islamabad authorities, also safely removed three wolves and some monkeys from the zoo. Two Himalayan bears will be transferred to Jordan in the coming months.