‘World’s loneliest elephant’ in Pakistan finds a new life

For years no one cared for his fate; he lived a lonely life, much in chains, for 35 years in a Pakistani zoo, where he had come as a gift from Sri Lanka

Kavita Bajeli-Datt Nov 30, 2020

For years no one cared for his fate; he lived a lonely life, much in chains, for 35 years in a Pakistani zoo, where he had come as a gift from Sri Lanka. Over a period of time, his wounds got infected and the chains around his legs left permanent scars. But on Sunday, Kaavan dubbed the "world’s loneliest elephant", left for a new life on the other side of the continent – a sanctuary in Cambodia in the much-needed company of other elephants.

Kaavan, a 36-year-old bull elephant, was able to leave his old life behind – where he once entertained crowds prompted by his handlers who poked him with nailed bullhooks, which also said to have led to his only companion’s death in 2012 – all thanks to persistent campaigning by American pop star Cher.

On Sunday, Kaavan was readied for an eight-hour flight to Cambodia where he will live in a 25,000-acre sanctuary.

It was not an easy task to get him into an elephant-sized metal box for transport. Experts spent hours coaxing the slightly sedated Kaavan into the specially crated metal vault that could carry his five-and-a-half ton weight. He was slowly cajoled into walking backward into the steel crate as dozens of men guided him inside by using chains. 

The Oscar-winning actress first learned of Kaavan's plight in 2016. Cher, who co-founded Free the Wild, a wildlife protection charity, hired a legal team to press for the elephant's freedom. When the court order freeing him was announced in May, the singer called it one of the "greatest moments" of her life. She chronicled Kaavan’s  progress on her Twitter account for her millions of fans.  

She spent recent days at the Islamabad zoo to provide moral support to Kaavan, whose pitiful treatment at the dilapidated facility sparked an uproar from animal rights groups and a spirited social media campaign by Cher, according to media reports. She also met Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.

"My wishes have finally come true", Cher said in a statement.

"We have been counting down to this moment and dreaming of it for so long and to finally see Kaavan transported out of (the Islamabad) zoo will remain with us forever," the famed singer, who is also planning to fly to Cambodia, said.

"Thanks to Cher and also to local Pakistani activists, Kaavan's fate made headlines around the globe and this contributed to the facilitation of his transfer," said Martin Bauer, a spokesman for Four Paws International, an animal welfare group that has spearheaded the relocation effort.

Cher’s  Free the Wild worked with Four Paws and the American syndicated columnist and philanthropist, Eric Margolis, to relocate Kaavan - a mission that's cost about $400,000. She's also making a documentary film about the process.

The plight of the male Asian elephant had captured worldwide attention. A judge this year ordered all the animals to be moved. The zoo, Marghuzar Zoo  – that once housed 500 animals but barely 30 were still alive - - was closed in August.

Kaavan was diagnosed earlier this year as being dangerously overweight, due to his diet of around 550 pounds of sugarcane each day. Experts said Kaavan was kept chained to his small enclosure, surrounded by a moat of water, and would need years of treatment.

According to media reports, he arrived in Pakistan as a gift from Sri Lanka when he was just a year old. It is said that the then military ruler Gen Ziaul Haq brought the elephant to Pakistan as a surprise for his daughter, Zain Zia, who had seen a popular Hindi film ‘Haathi Mera Saathi (Elephant My Companion)' and wanted an elephant. 

Experts said that Kaavan will get a chance to be an elephant again and live in a natural habitat with a range of endangered species.

(The writer can be contacted at kavita.b@spsindia.in)

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