The ‘world’s loneliest elephant’ has officially met Cher, after being transported from Pakistan to Cambodia following a major social media campaign.
Right, there’s a lot to unpack there. Kaavan, an overweight, 36-year-old bull elephant, has been the subject of a global campaign on social media, with animal rights groups petitioning for him to be moved from an Islamabad zoo, following accusations of poor care and conditions.
Fortunately, the elephant’s eight-year struggle ended this week after a transport plane flew from Pakistan to Cambodia in order to drop him off on Monday. Even more fortunate was that singer, songwriter, and total ’70s icon, Cher, was on the tarmac at the airport of Cambodian city, Siem Reap, to greet the elephant.
Cher also met the vets who accompanied him on his long journey in a custom-made crate, with more than 200kg (440 pounds) of food to keep him preoccupied.
“I am so proud he is here,” she told AFP, after greeting Kaavan through an opening at the base of the crate.
“He’s going to be really happy here.”
Cher has been a longtime advocate for Kaavan’s freedom and managed to boost campaigns dedicated to moving him to another facility.
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Kaavan, a five-tonne Asian elephant who was a gift in 1985 from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, was until recently the only Asian elephant in Pakistan after his partner, Saheli, died at Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad in 2012.
Conditions at Marghazar Zoo became so bad that a court in the Pakistani capital ordered it to close in August. Animal rights groups have said that the elephant’s behaviour in captivity demonstrated “a kind of mental illness” – likely due to his loneliness and the zoo’s woeful conditions.
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The international team that made the journey possible was comprised of organisations including Four Paws and Free the Wild – the latter of which is led by both Cher and Eric Margolis, a US businessman who helped make the trip possible.
“My wishes have finally come true”, Cher said in a statement thanking her charity, Free the Wild.
“We have been counting down to this moment and dreaming of it for so long and to finally see Kaavan transported out of [the Islamabad] zoo will remain with us forever.”
Kaavan will be now transported from Siem Reap to the neighbouring province of Oddar Meanchey, where he will settle in his new home at a wildlife sanctuary along with 600 other elephants.
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Lombard spent almost three months alongside Amir Khalil, mission leader of Four Paws in Islamabad, who helped Kaavan prepare for the journey.
Khalil noted that he was not worried about Kaavan’s health or transition – instead, he believes that what is most important is how Kaavan now socialises with other elephants.
“I’ve never bonded with an animal like I did with Kaavan and he finally found a friend in me, but with other elephants, he can have more friends that speak the same language…and have someone who can hear you,” Khalil told Al Jazeera from Siem Reap.
“Especially because he was so lonely for so many years. Elephants have great memories, he’s witnessed so much and he’s going to have great stories to tell his new lady friends.”
A lawyer who was part of the relocation project, Owais Awan, noted that Kaavan’s worldwide attention could hopefully be transferred to other elephants in the same condition.
“Kaavan has become a symbol of hope and freedom for the hundreds of captive elephants all around the world,” he said.