How Kaavan attained freedom after 35 years

Kaavan, now probably the most famous elephant in the world, has safely reached his new retirement home, the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. There are pictures of him walking around his new home at dusk. He must be disoriented after the seven hour flight but animals adapt quickly to their surroundings. After his quarantine, he will gradually be introduced to the three female Asian elephants already at the sanctuary.

For the local and international activists who have been demanding his freedom for years, this must be an extremely emotional time. For the Government of Pakistan, especially the Ministry of Climate Change who facilitated his departure (with the military helping with the logistics), it is a relief that he has reached safely. After 35 years in Islamabad Zoo, where he was treated abysmally, the current leadership feels that he deserves to enjoy his retirement years and live in peace in the company of other elephants.

There is no doubt that the singer Cher played a vital role in his freedom with all her tweets and campaigning since 2015. Kaavan was very lucky indeed to have drawn the attention of one the world’s biggest pop divas. Let’s not forget that there are over 600 zoos in the world and 194 of these have elephants; around 50 have solitary elephants. These are facts given to me by forester Syed Rizwan Mehboob who says he is hurt by the negative publicity which Pakistan is getting as news items like “Loneliest Elephant released from Pakistan” are flashed across the globe. I personally think zoos are a dated concept given that we are in the midst of a global, manmade 6th mass extinction of plants and animals.

At any rate, Islamabad Zoo was ordered to be shut down by the Islamabad High Court back in May 21, 2020 and the animals be shifted to “sanctuaries” within the next 60 days. The problem was that there are no proper animal sanctuaries in Pakistan as such. During the shifting two lions died which created an outcry. The Islamabad Zoo is now closed to the public and the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB) is considering future options for it that will be in keeping with the best international practices.

The government decided to sign all the necessary permissions and send Kaavan to an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia as Pakistan does not have one. It would take a couple of years to build an elephant sanctuary and to train the staff. Kaavan was our sole Asian elephant; the other 4 elephants in zoos across Pakistan are from Africa. Kaavan couldn’t be kept in the company of African elephants. Elephants are social animals but one can’t put Asian and African elephants together. Kaavan’s mate Saheli (another Asian elephant from Sri Lanka) died in 2012 and he had been alone since then.

It was Cher’s Free the Wild foundation that sent the Four Paws International team headed by the very competent Dr Amir Khalil to Islamabad back in August this year (in the midst of a pandemic) to look after the elephant and plan for his relocation to Cambodia. Dr Amir won over Kaavan with his love and patient care, not to mention his singing and helped him to lose weight to ready him for his departure.

Finally the big day arrived on the 29th of December. But to everyone’s surprise, two days before Kaavan’s departure date, Cher herself arrived in Islamabad. No one was sure she would actually travel here during the second wave of the coronavirus. Cher arrived quietly and stayed at a local 5 star hotel. She wanted to meet PM Imran Khan to thank him personally for the release of the elephant and this was arranged by the Special Assistant to the PM on Climate Change, Malik Amin Aslam.

The IWMB then facilitated Cher’s visit to the Islamabad Zoo the day before Kaavan’s departure where she met Kaavan in person for the first time and sang to him. Dr Amer introduced the elephant to her and she shed tears while hearing his story and feeding him. She later thanked the IWMB for the facilitation and especially thanked Malik Amin’s wife for her husband’s help in releasing the elephant. She took pictures with us and that broke the ice for the local activists who also wanted pictures with the super star.

Cher singing to Kaavan the day before his departure to Cambodia.

Cher was very sweet, graciously agreeing to take pictures with everyone who mustered up the courage to approach her, although her security had earlier warned people that no cameras would be allowed in her presence. You see Cher was making her own documentary on Kaavan’s journey with the Smithsonian channel that will be released in 2021 and there were copyright issues. She was clearly thrilled to have met Kaavan and really seemed to have a deep connection with him. She stayed late at the zoo, filming interviews and meeting with the local activists. All this was done in peace as the zoo had been shut down for the local media.

Cher takes a picture with Amna Amin and me after her tour of the Islamabad Zoo.

The next day, the date of Kaavan’s departure, the media had to be allowed in and despite being invited to speak at a joint press conference by both the Ministry of Climate Change and the Four Paws team, Cher decided not to join in. In fact, she gave no interviews to the media throughout her trip and other than shooting her own documentary she kept to herself. Such is the life of a super star who has to be careful about her image and security! She was very happy about being able to shoot her documentary, however, and her team conveyed their gratitude. She left the next day in order to be able to reach Cambodia in time to welcome Kaavan.

The day of Kaavan’s departure was a tense day. The media, both local and international, was clamoring for pictures and information and had to be given access to the zoo even though Kaavan needed to be carefully prepped for the long journey. At the last minute his cargo plane had to land at the international airport instead of Nur Khan air base. The plane had to make a mandatory stop in New Delhi on its way to Cambodia as permission for a fly over was not granted in time. Also Kaavan had to be sedated and yet kept active enough to be able to move him into his specially designed container.

Kaavan in his container, ready for his journey to Cambodia.

Kaavan inside the container, leaving Islamabad Zoo and heading to the airport.

German expert Frank Gortz, who came from Austria for the translocation of Kaavan, was the elephant expert who helped Dr Amir along with the Four Paws team. The staff of the IWMB also helped along with local activists. It took a team effort to finally pull the five and a half tons Kaavan into his container with ropes and have the container lifted by a crane onto a trawler. The media refused to budge from the zoo as they needed to cover the story. Finally at 9pm the trawler, now under the protection of the military, left for Islamabad International Airport with a convoy. At 4.30 am his plane departed for Cambodia.

All’s well that ends well and with Kaavan arriving safely at his sanctuary, Cher’s Free the Wild organisation has formally invited the SAPM Amin Aslam to visit him in Cambodia and see their model for eco-tourism. As for the nearly empty Islamabad Zoo, we are now planning to make it into a new facility and eventually bring back the other animals being kept at various locations in Islamabad. It will be more along the lines of a conservation centre and the focus would be on indigenous species. We are not planning to import any more wild animals into Pakistan.


All photos courtesy of the author.