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November 30, 2020

World’s loneliest elephant finds peace at last

National

November 30, 2020

Kaavan, dubbed the world’s loneliest elephant, finally flew out of Pakistan on Sunday November 29 aboard a special cargo plane to better living conditions in a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia. The story of Kaavan is so pathetic that it caught the attention of animal rights activists internationally, who campaigned to find solace for Kaavan. The 36-year-old pachyderm had arrived at the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad in 1985 at the age of one, after being gifted by Sri Lanka. This scribe visited the baby elephant at the zoo with my children to see the cute baby elephant, shortly after his arrival. In later years, my grandchildren enjoyed his company feeding sugarcane pieces to him and his mate Saheli, the female elephant who was gifted by Bangladesh. Over the years, the pair provided joy to generations of children, performing antics to amuse them, despite being cooped up in a tiny enclosure and being secured by chains. However, tragedy struck in 2012, when Saheli died due to a leg infection caused by the chains. Campaigners say the heartbreaking image of Kaavan standing above the dead body of his partner shocked the world.

Animal rights activists both nationally and internationally, took up the cudgels for freeing Kaavan from his misery. Leading the campaign were pop icon, TV and cinema heart throb Oscar Award winner and philanthropist Cher Bono and the Austria based global animal welfare organization Four Paws. In 2016, Cher, who co-founded a wildlife protection charity named Free The Wild (FTW), launched a #SaveKaavan campaign for his relocation. Kaavan’s fans started a campaign, which resulted in a petition signed by 200,000 people, prompting the Islamabad High Court in May 2020, taking notice and ordering the closure of Marghazar Zoo because of its abysmal conditions blaming it on systemic negligence and directed all animals in the zoo to be moved to better locations. The petition also moved Four Paws, whose vision is a world where humans treat animals with respect, empathy and understanding for animals under direct human influence, to come to Pakistan to assess the health status of Kaavan and submit a report regarding the conditions not only of the elephant but all the animals living in what it denounced as the notorious zoo.

The officials of the Zoo denied Kaavan was kept in substandard conditions or chained, claiming instead the creature was pining for a new mate after his partner died in 2012 and had started displaying violent mood swings. But Kaavan’s behaviour, including signs of distress such as continual head-bobbing, raised concerns of mental illness. Activists also said Kaavan was not properly sheltered from Islamabad’s searing summer temperatures, which can rise above 40 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit).

Cher Bono and Four Paws’ public campaign for the elephant’s relocation bore fruit and the decision was taken to move Kaavan. To prepare him for the eight hours’ flight to Cambodia, months of veterinary care and a special training regime was conducted to habituate the elephant to a huge metal crate he will travel in. Medical exams in September showed his nails were cracked and overgrown apparently from years of living in an improper enclosure with flooring that damaged his feet.

Ultimately, as the date for Kaavan’s departure drew near, despite the challenges of the pandemic COVID-19, Islamabad’s animal lovers held a ceremony to fondly bid farewell to the 35-year-old bull elephant with performances from local bands who serenaded Kaavan ahead of the move, since according to zoologists, animals love music. Banners, treats, balloons and music were the highlight of the farewell party organized by friends of Pakistan’s only Asian elephant. Local band Khumaariyan performed at Kaavan’s leaving party.

Marion Lombard, the deputy mission leader for Four Paws International on occasion of the farewell party, stated that her organization wanted to wish him a happy retirement, before flying out. She stated that her organization has been committed to performing the heaviest rescue it ever did. Kaavan was loaded in a custom-built crate onto a heavy-duty cargo plane after being sedated to endure the flight to freedom.

Wildlife veterinarians and experts also accompanied the elephant on his journey to Cambodia, where a special enclosure has to be built for Kaavan to settle in and to get familiarized with other elephants living there.

Cher called the decision to move him one of the ‘greatest moments’ of her life and flew in to Islamabad on Friday, two days before Kaavan’s departure. Directly on arrival, she made a beeline for Islamabad Zoo, said hello to Kaavan, took a stroll through the quieter parts of the Zoo and then “reveled in the big boy’s (Kaavan’s) bath time,” said a message posted on the FTW website along with Cher’s pictures. She also called on Prime Minister Imran Khan to thank him and the people of Pakistan for their help and support to allow Kaavan to move to Cambodia and live out the rest of his life in peace and with dignity. The Prime Minister’s office quoted him as telling Cher that it was “indeed a happy moment that after giving joy and happiness to Pakistanis for years, Kaavan will now be able to retire with other elephants in a specialized sanctuary in Cambodia.”

Adieu Kaavan, may you find peace and happiness in your new home. You deserve it after your three and a half decades’ stay where you brought cheer to millions.