The world’s loneliest elephant has finally escaped a torturous life of abuse and cruelty inside a dilapidated zoo in Islamabad and is ready to live the rest of his life in a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia.
This is the tale of an elephant named Kaavan who was just a baby when he was “gifted” to Pakistan’s Marghazar Zoo by Sri Lanka in the mid-1980s. The exact reasons behind the gift remain obscure, as does the question of whether Kaavan was really an orphan. What we do know is that this helpless and innocent creature ended up at a tortuous zoo in Islamabad.
Kaavan was harrowingly abused at the hands of zookeepers for decades. He was poked and prodded with nailed bullhooks. He was forced to entertain screaming crowds from the confines of his living quarters – a barren area wholly deprived of the natural environment elephants need.
He watched his only companion – a female elephant named Saheli – succumb to gangrene in 2012, allegedly caused by bull-hook nails digging deep into her skin. When she died, Saheli’s lifeless body lay for several days beside the heartsick Kaavan until zookeepers eventually removed her.
And for years, nobody cared about Kaavan’s lonely existence. He was just another elephant who had fallen through animal welfare cracks.
His wounds became infected, and his legs bared the scars of heavy chains. Slowly, he drifted into psychosis and became dangerously obese.
When volunteers from the Friends of Islamabad Zoo (FIZ) began visiting the zoo in 2016, they saw it had no veterinary facility, no supplies of medicine, and no space where sick animals could be kept in isolation. They also saw how Kaavan’s health had deteriorated.
He spent his time throwing his head from side to side, a stereotypical sign of misery in an elephant. He suffered conjunctivitis, his legs were riddled with scars and lesions from chains. He was also worryingly overweight because of the diet of sugar cane he was fed by his keepers.
Despite the severity of his condition, nobody wanted to lose the star attraction of the zoo. As it turned out, what Kaavan needed was an even bigger star to come to his aid.
When pop singer Cher first learned of Kaavan, the Oscar-winning actress and singer and co-founder a wildlife protection charity, Free the Wild, hired a legal team to press for the elephant’s freedom. Kaavan’s plight went viral, sparking a global uproar from animal rights groups worldwide, who pledged their support to save him.
The singer called it one of the “greatest moments” of her life when the court ordered the elephant be freed in May. But the battle was far from over for Kaavan and the other animals in the zoo. The issue was tossed from one department to another before eventually ending up in the High Court of Islamabad. An order came in June to close the zoo for good and Austria-based animal welfare organization Four Paws was granted permission to remove Kaavan.
A team of vets and experts spent months working with the elephant to get him ready for the trip.
Earlier this week, Kaavan was loaded onto a mammoth Russian cargo plane destined for Cambodia – a mission that’s cost about $400,000. He will now live in a vast jungle enclosure. He will also have the company he so craves, with three Asian female elephants who reside at the 25,000-acre sanctuary.
“Zoos are despicably cruel man-made prisons and while we are so happy that Kaavan has been given a second chance at life, we cannot forget all the other billions and billions of animals that are suffering in zoos across the world,” said David Barritt of Network for Animals (NFA).