Pointed bull hooks lunged into Kaavan’s side. Crowds had lined the fence of his enclosure to see Pakistan’s only Asian elephant and the sharp jab had meant that he was being told to perform for them.
A hand clasping money was raised in the air and the spectator was willing to exchange it with the handlers in return for Kaavan reaching out his trunk and take it from their palm.
The bull hook jolted into his side once more and the dejected creature lifted his trunk and passed over the cash that was set to line his handler’s pockets.
For 35 years, ‘the world’s loneliest elephant’ had been made to perform for spectators from his miserable, baron half-acre of land at Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad. Wounds on his legs had become infected, he had been placed in chains, and a poor diet left him dangerously obese.
Kaavan’s only companion died at the zoo in 2012 and the lonely elephant was living out a sorrowful existence.
But after years of campaigning by animal activists, the world’s loneliest elephant was rescued from his tragic life with the help of a legendary music icon. And much like her 1998 hit, pop star Cher helped the elephant believe in life after love.
To turn back time, Kaavan was born in Sri Lanka in 1985 and started life at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage 60 miles (96km) northeast of the capital Colombo. It’s thought that the baby elephant was a gift to General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s government for supporting the Sri Lankan army during an insurgency.
The calf was placed in the relatively new Marguzar Zoo. But having opened seven years earlier, corruption had taken hold of the animal park and authorities were not taking interest in the treatment of its residents.
Standards were poor, enclosures were cramped, and food lacked any nutrition.
Instead of caring for its creatures, the zoo was renting out its animals to parties held by influential locals.
Kaavan’s enclosure was incredibly compact at around half the size of a football pitch. It was also barren. There were no trees, plants, logs, or anything to provide the little elephant with entertainment.
For decades, Kaavan would be made to entertain crowds that gathered around the fence to his enclosure. His mahout would prod him with the pointed bull hook and Kaavan would have to raise his trunk in the air and take money from the crowd to pass back to the handler.
In the 1990s, a female elephant called Saheli came to join Kaavan from Bangladesh. She told Kaavan, ‘I got you babe’, and the two became companions amid the dire conditions.
Tragically, Saheli died in 2012. Her death was allegedly from sepsis, but the zoo claimed it was a heart attack inflicted on her by the heat.
Just like humans, elephants are known to mourn death and will experience a similar period of grief to humans. Kaavan became lonely without his companion.
The elephant found it difficult to be strong enough and he slipped into a state of psychosis. He had become increasingly angry and his handlers decided to place him in chains. They were also claiming he was dangerous and Kaavan lost all interaction. The loneliest elephant in the world was deserted and had no animal or human for company.
Kaavan cased to be active. He stopped exploring the enclosure, he was not interested in humans, and he was very overweight.
In 2016, singer Cher discovered the squalor and sorrowful existence the elephant was living in.
The plight of the ‘world’s loneliest elephant’ had led to a social media campaign that caught Cher’s attention and she decided to help earn Kaavan his freedom.
Cher said her fans’ persistence convinced her to help Kaavan, and said: ‘I never actually intended to, I just got swept up in it because the kids on my Twitter feed started sending me these pictures and it was all ‘free Kaavan, free Kaavan’.
‘And I looked at the pictures and they were terrible but I thought, ‘I can’t do anything’, so I didn’t answer them and thought eventually they’ll just stop.
‘But they didn’t and so I started to get involved.’
Cher co-founded Free The Wild with partners Mark Cowne, Gina Nelthorpe Cowne and Jennifer Ruiz, and the group hired a legal team to fight for Kaavan’s freedom.
She recorded the song Walls to boost the movement. Her efforts paid off when in May 2020, Islamabad’s High Court ordered Kaavan be freed.
Working with the international rescue organisation Four Paws and vet Dr Amir Khalil, the team found Kaavan a home in a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia where he could live out the rest of his years with everything that he had been deprived of throughout his life.
Kaavan was then transported to his new home in Cambodia by plane. But the obese and angry elephant who had been starved of any company for years proved difficult to transport. The team would sing to the elephant to calm him down and he eventually got used to their voice.
Dr Amir, a Four Paws veterinarian, said at the time: ‘Kaavan’s rescue was an extraordinary experience.
‘We transferred an elephant from Pakistan to Cambodia during a global pandemic, together with Cher, who helped with the rescue alongside the organisation and national authorities.
‘I’m proud we were part of this truly unique story.’
After the success in rehoming Kaavan, Martin Bauer of Four Paws said: ‘Thanks to Cher, but also local Pakistani activists, Kaavan’s fate made headlines around the world, and this contributed to the facilitation of his transfer.’
Even after he is in Cambodia, he will require years of physical and even psychological assistance, Mr Bauer said.
Pakistan’s high court has since ordered the closure of Marghazar Zoo in the capital of Islamabad, where Kaavan has lived for much of his life.
Now, almost three years on, Kaavan is thriving at the Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary in Siem Reap, Cambodia.
He has been pictured splashing around and enjoying life again.
Dr Amir said: ‘He has rediscovered his natural instincts and can enjoy having other elephants around.
‘Kaavan is living the life he deserves. I’m looking forward to visiting him as soon as possible to see for myself what a difference the last year made.
‘While Kaavan has not yet been socialised with other elephants, the team at CWS continues to monitor his development and will determine if he becomes interested in having a companion.
‘Until then, neighbouring enclosures allow for the elephants to get used to each other’s smell and touch each other’s trunks, a friendly gesture.
’35 years in captivity causes a lot of trauma but Kaavan is making great progress, roaming around his spacious jungle enclosure and enjoying baths in his pond.
This article by Christian Oliver was first published by The Daily Mail on 28 January 2023. Lead Image: Kaavan was once dubbed the ‘world’s loneliest elephant’. He is pictured in Marghazar Zoo, Islamabad, Pakistan before he was rescued.
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