Cher Welcomes “World’s Loneliest Elephant” to New Home in Cambodia

Paul Pinkerton
 
Getty Images
Getty Images

Kaavan is the “world’s loneliest elephant” no longer. The start of the week saw him landing in Cambodia, following a 7 hour flight from his former home of Pakistan.

 

And he received an A List reception… Cher was on hand to greet him! The singer and actress proved instrumental in getting Kaavan relocated from his grim enclosure at Marghazar Zoo, Islamabad.

The trunked wonder went from Siem Reap airport – where his crate was splashed with holy water by monks – to Kulen-Promtep wildlife sanctuary. “Tomorrow (Tuesday) he will meet his two curious neighbors and start his integration into his new herd” writes the ‘Free Kaavan the Elephant’ Facebook page. They go on to add, “Kaavan is home.”

Why did he need rescuing in the first place? Kaavan’s plight has been on the minds of animal lovers and campaigners for a long time. News broke that he and other animal attractions lived neglected lives at the zoo.

Newly arrived Asian elephant Kaavan drinks water in his new enclosure at the Kulen Prom Tep Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia’s Oddar Meanchey province on December 1, 2020. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP) (Photo by TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images)

Newly arrived Asian elephant Kaavan drinks water in his new enclosure at the Kulen Prom Tep Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia’s Oddar Meanchey province on December 1, 2020. (Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP) (Photo by TANG CHHIN SOTHY/AFP via Getty Images)

Kaavan first arrived there in 1985 and is now pushing middle age. The business was run with profit rather than welfare in mind. Kaavan and friends had a truly miserable time of it.

In addition to wandering the enclosure, measuring half an acre, he collected money from adoring crowds. Incredibly, zoo staff would prod Kaavan with bull hooks to get him moving.

These sharp objects not only penetrated the skin but apparently caused sepsis in his female companion Saheli. She is believed to have died from septic shock in 2012, after spending nearly 2 decades with Kaavan. The loss hit the tortured elephant hard.

How did he wind up in Pakistan in the first place? An innocent request from a small child is the tragic answer. Usually when a little girl watches a movie and wishes she had something from it, her wishes go unfulfilled. Not in this case. Grown up Zain Zia told BBC News what she was thinking 35 years ago: “Allah Mian, give me a haathi mera saathi (dear God, give me an elephant to be my friend)”.

Young Zain Zia with her father, General Haq. Credit: Zain Zia

Young Zain Zia with her father, General Haq. Credit: Zain Zia

Zia asked her father for an elephant and he duly brought one over. After all, he was General Ziaul Haq, ruler of Pakistan. Political connections meant Kaavan was duly imported from Sri Lanka and installed at Marghazar Zoo. Zia wanted him at the house but the General knew this wasn’t possible.

At 1 million acres, Kulen-Promtep is a far cry from the poorly-maintained concrete enclosure he’s accustomed to. The alarm was first sounded by volunteer group FIZ (Friends of Islamabad Zoo).

Zain Zia at her home in Pakistan. Credit: Zain Zia

Zain Zia at her home in Pakistan. Credit: Zain Zia

Then welfare organization FPI (Four Paws International) got involved. Yet there was higher profile assistance to come, as the clamor grew for Kaavan to have his freedom.

Free The World is a charity founded by none other than Cher. The star was alerted to Kaavan’s story by her social media followers. “They would not stop saying ‘Cher, you have to do something, you have to fix this, you have to save him’” she said, quoted by The Hollywood Reporter (THR).

She spoke to Pakistan’s President Imran Khan and filmed a documentary (‘Cher’s Elephant Airlift’, as mentioned by THR) to be aired on the Smithsonian Channel next year.

She threw her financial weight behind a legal battle which came out in the elephant’s favor in May. It’s taken this long for various bureaucratic hurdles to be cleared. FPI are also looking after the interests of the zoo’s other stricken animals.

Cher wasn’t the only musical talent on the books. FPI’s Dr Amir Khalil’s singing proved a great comfort to poor Kaavan. Over the years the elephant had gained weight and suffered from infected wounds.

He bore scars from the chains used to keep him in his terrible predicament. Kaavan’s psychological scars are arguably the most difficult to heal. Away from contact with his fellow creatures, the toll taken on his mental health is reportedly severe.

Kaavan used to be the only Asian elephant in Pakistan. Now he’s out of the country he can start a new and more normal life in Cambodia.

“We expect to breed Kaavan with local elephants” says Deputy Environment Minister Neth Pheaktra, quoted by The Guardian and Agence France-Presse. It’s part of “an effort to conserve the genetic fold.”

If anything can take Kaavan’s mind off his troubles, it’s surely the bare necessities…

 
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