An isolated, mistreated and dangerously overweight elephant that spent more than three decades languishing inside a notorious Pakistani zoo has finally arrived in a new home to start a new life – thanks to a wide-reaching and lengthy campaign led by Cher.
Kaavan, who became known as “the world’s loneliest elephant” after his partner, who lived with him, died in 2012, has spent 35 years in captivity – and in shackles – at Islamabad’s Marghazar Zoo, a run-down institution that served as his home until Cher secured his release.
“A dream is a wish your heart makes,” she sang to the animal in Pakistan, belting the hopeful lyrics from the “Cinderella” ballad.
It has taken four years for the animal-loving singer and a team of experts from Four Paws International to extract the 36-year-old elephant, whose sad situation Cher said she learned about from people on Twitter. “They would not stop saying ‘Cher, you have to do something, you have to fix this, you have to save him,’ ” she said, according to the Smithsonian Channel, which is making a documentary about Kaavan’s plight. “I thought how can I fix this? How can I save an elephant who’s been shackled to a shed for 17 years and who is a thousand miles away?”
Freeing Kaavan has been no simple task. Those close to the animal spent weeks training him to calmly enter and exit the custom-built crate designed to transport a 5.5-ton mammal. The Asian elephant’s trainers now know that music soothes his anxiety – something Cher has been happy to help with.
Despite initial concerns for the animal’s welfare, Amir Khalil, a veterinarian working at Four Paws, said Kaavan did not appear to be stressed during the seven-hour flight to his new home, describing the journey aboard an Ilyushin IL-76 plane to Cambodia as “uneventful.” In fact, Kaavan displayed signs of “a frequent flier,” eating, sleeping, relaxing and seemingly enjoying the ride, Khalil said Monday.
Cher, who co-founded the international animal charity Free the Wild, was photographed Monday holding a flower and wearing a face covering as she waited for Kaavan’s crate – lovingly hand-painted with illustrations and the message “Free Kaavan” – to touch down at Cambodia’s Siem Reap International Airport.
Kaavan will soon be transported to Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, where staff say a “juicy fruitcake” and “welcoming committee” await him – along with female neighbors who are expected to keep him company as he begins a new chapter in an environment where he’ll be safe and free to roam.
“Cambodia is pleased to welcome Kaavan,” the nation’s deputy environment minister, Neth Pheaktra, said. “No longer will he be ‘the world’s loneliest elephant.’ “
The hashtag #FreeKaavan has long been used on social media by animal activists, who have spent years campaigning for the animals kept in confinement at the Islamabad zoo to be given a better life.
After mounting pressure, fueled in part by Cher’s campaign, Islamabad’s high court ruled in May that the zoo’s conditions “amount to subjecting (animals) to unnecessary pain and suffering,” and called for all animals held at the zoo to be relocated to sanctuaries.
The abysmal conditions at the zoo have faced intense scrutiny for years. Officials at the facility have blamed insufficient funding and poor training, but Pakistani authorities have also failed to enforce animal care regulations. Many of the animals left in the capital city’s zoo are living in cramped conditions that rights groups have described as “abhorrent and unacceptable.”
One attempted transfer ended tragically after animal handlers lit a fire in a big-cat enclosure to force two lions into transportation crates. Both died of smoke inhalation.
Some of the last animals waiting to be moved include two retired dancing bears, who are suffering from behavioral disorders because of illness and lack of space. The bears are set to be transferred to Jordan in the coming months, according to Four Paws.
Kaavan was gifted to Pakistan by Sri Lanka in 1985, when the elephant was just a baby.
Elephants are social animals and a solitary lifestyle can lead to boredom and behavioral problems; following the death of Kaavan’s zoo partner, who lived with him, Saheli, his mental and physical health deteriorated, according to experts, who note that along with being malnourished, he has displayed a range of physical and psychological issues.
Last week Cher met with Prime Minister Imran Khan, who she later thanked for his help in “making it possible” for her to take the Asian elephant to Cambodia on a flight that left Pakistan on Sunday.
Khan thanked Cher for her efforts and invited her to participate further in environmental initiatives in Pakistan, according to a statement from the prime minister’s office.
Ahead of his long-awaited departure, supporters at the zoo threw a goodbye party for Kaavan, with balloons, colorful bunting and live music.
Then, on Sunday, Four Paws tweeted a photograph of Kaavan’s enclosure, which now lies empty for the first time in 35 years.
“Dreams do come true!” the organization wrote as activists celebrated the success of the rescue mission – one that animal lovers, along with Kaavan, the now-not-so-lonely-elephant, will surely never forget.