This story is about Kaavan, an Asian Elephant that captured the hearts of thousands of people around the globe including one American Rockstar.
Kaavan’s story starts in Srilanka.
Reports differ about whether Kaavan was taken from the wild or was born in captivity and there is no information about his mother. Records show that Kaavan was born in 1984 and that he lived in Sri Lanka’s Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage until he was a year old.
Credit : Picture
In 1985, one-year-old Kavaan was given as a diplomatic gift to Pakistan’s military ruler, Gen. Zia-ul-Haq.
The Dictator’s daughter, Zain Zia had fallen in love with elephants after watching a Bollywood film.
In an interview by BBC in 2020, Zain Zia said “I looked up at the sky and prayed, Allah Mian, give me a haathi mera saathi (“Dear God, give me an elephant to be my friend”), her father overheard her prayer.
One morning Zain’s father blindfolded her and led her outside where he surprised her with baby Kaavan.
Zain begged her father to keep Kaavan at the palace but was convinced by her father that elephants belong in a zoo, where they can be better cared for. In 1985, Kaavan was placed at the Marghuzar Zoo of Islamabad. Zain would have to visit the zoo to see her elephant friend grow up.
Over the next three decades, Zain grew up and started a family of her own. Kaavan grew up too, but instead of fathering a family, he would become known as “The loneliest elephant in the world”.
Still just a baby in 1985, Kaavan lived alone in a half-acre enclosure for the next five years. During this time, Kaavan was the star of the zoo. He was trained to perform for guests and was even hired out to rich and influential friends of zoo authorities for parties.
Credit : picture
Fact: In the wild, male Asian elephants have a roaming area of up to 125 square miles (201 kilometers).
In 1990, the zoo acquired a female elephant named Saheli from Bangladesh. Kaavan lived in the small habitat with his mate, Saheli for the next 22 years. Unfortunately, Saheli died in 2012. Her body was not removed from the enclosure for days.
Zoo officials reportedly said that Saheli had suffered a heart attack from the heat. However, a recent publication put out by BBC tells a different story.
Mohammad bin Naveed, a member of a volunteer group called Friends of Islamabad Zoo (FIZ) said, “At some point, the unsterilized nails of the mahout’s bullhook went too far into her skin. She got gangrene and died of septic shock. Everyone knows this, but won’t admit it”. (From BBC interview). The death of Saheli upset the Islamabad community resulting in protests about the zoo and the conditions Kaavan was living in for the first time.
However it happened, after the tragic death of Saheli in 2012, Kaavan was left living all alone again.
Fact: Elephants are very intelligent and social, they travel in families and mourn their dead.
After the death of his mate, Kaavan became increasingly depressed. Kaavan was showing signs of stress, swinging his head in a back and forth motion (weaving), his body swaying for hours on end.
At some point, chains were placed on all four of Kaavans’ feet because according to the zoo he had “become aggressive with his handler”.
In 2015, an online petition demanding the release of Kaavan was started by a local student on Change.org, it would ultimately collect over 400,000 signatures.
In September of 2016, Kaavan was featured in a news report and on the internet. Kaavan had reportedly been living in chains for over two decades by this time. Images of Kaavan alone and in chains were spreading on the internet.
Fact: Elephants cry real tears.
Dr. Amir Khalil, a veterinarian working with the animal welfare organization Four Paws International, came to assess the conditions of the Islamabad zoo for the first time in 2016.
In an interview with NPR news, Dr.Khalil said that Kaavan was obese, aggressive, and depressed.
“They forced him sometimes to drink whiskey and vodka, even in an Islamic country where alcohol is forbidden,” he told NPR.
In 2016, due to increasing public pressure, zoo officials decided to send Kaavan to a sanctuary in Cambodia. Kaavan however, was not relocated. He continued to live his solitary life at the zoo.
Fact: Elephants are self-aware.
If an elephant sees something on its face in a mirror, the elephant will try to wipe the substance from its face.
Seeing the heartbreaking images of Kaavan online, American pop singer and actress, Cher was moved to take action. Spearheaded by Cher and her charity, Free the Wild, and supported by Four Paws, and other animal rights organizations, a campaign was launched to relocate the animals and close the Islamabad zoo.
#SaveKavaan exploded on social media and Kaavan went viral!
Images and reports showed Kaavan chained and living alone in a small enclosure with only a small pool of water in temperatures reaching up to a sweltering 104°F (40°C).
Pressure was building and Kaavan was still in chains.
In 2019, the organization Friends of Islamabad Zoo (FIZ) started conducting surveys. Among the numerous problems reported by FIZ, were inconsistencies about the number of animals housed at the zoo, lack of medical supplies and facilities, and no quarantine area for sick animals.
Despite Covid-19, Kaavan and the rest of the animals living at the Islamabad zoo had their case presented at the Islamabad High court on May 21, 2020.
Fact: Elephants pick up sound vibrations from their toenails, the sound then makes its way into their ears.
Citing the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act of 1890 and the Wildlife Ordinance of 1979, the court criticized zoo officials for failing to meet the needs of animals in their care. The zoo was ordered to relocate all of the animals and close its doors permanently.
Ecstatic, Cher tweeted “We have just heard from the Pakistan High Court that Kaavan is Free. This is the greatest moment of my life”. The star thanked the Islamabad court and Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan for their help with freeing Kaavan.
There was light at the end of a very dark tunnel for the worlds loneliest elephant.
The Pakistani High Court had ordered that a suitable sanctuary be found within 30 days and that Kaavan be freed. Veterinarian Amir Khalil of Four Paws was put in charge of Kaavans relocation.
Khalil recommended relocating Kaavan to Lek’s Sanctuary in Cambodia saying,”A place we have personally visited and vetted and are delighted for Kaavan to call home”. (Free the Wild, July 2020)
Lek’s Wildlife sanctuary in Siem Reap, Cambodia consists of over 30,000 acres of protected forest and is bordered by more protected land in neighboring countries, ensuring the safety of endangered animals roaming free there. “Cambodia has a very good space where we could build the appropriate facility for the elephant’s quarantine and rehabilitation,” Khalil said.
On July 17, 2020, Free the Wild announced that consent had been given by the Government of Pakistan to relocate Kaavan to Lek’s sanctuary in Cambodia.
Over the next four months, Kaavan received the best care of his so far dismal life in the Islamabad Zoo.
With Veterinarian Khalil in charge of his care, Kaavan was put on a healthy diet and received medical care for his infected toenails, the same condition that Saheli had ultimately died from 8 years earlier. Kavaan started receiving therapy in preparation for his long-awaited journey out of captivity.
With a skilled team of Veterinarians and elephant experts, Kaavan practiced entering and exiting a huge cage that was specifically made for him. After working with Kavaan three times a day for three months, the team felt confident that Kaavans flight to Cambodia would be safe and relatively stress-free for the elephant.
Fact: Weighing in at 8,800 lbs. (3.99 metric tons), male Asian elephants are 9 feet (2.7 m.) tall and reach up to 21 feet (6.4 m.) in length.
A ceremony was organized to bid farewell to Kavaan. The ceremony was held in Islamabad at Marghazar Zoo and was attended by officials, activists, and members of the public.
Cher traveled to Pakistan to visit Kavaan and wished him safe travels. Cher was witnessed singing to Kavaan as he slowly swayed before her, seemingly enjoying the music.
The President of Pakistan, Arif Alvi, First Lady Sameena Alvi, and various ministers and delegates all bid a final farewell to Kavaan.
On November 30, 2020, Kavaan stepped into a 6.5 by 3.5-meter steel crate. Kavaan traveled 2,100 miles to Cambodia in a Russian aircraft, the Ilyushin Il-76.
Kavaan was met by his Veterinarian, Amir Khalil, and actress, singer and songwriter, Cher when he took his first steps out of the crate and into his new home the night of December 1, 2020.
Kavaan was initially placed in a temporary enclosure where he continued to receive care. Kavaan sustained no injuries during his travels.
Before saying goodbye to Kavaan, Cher sang to him again. A heart-melting serenade of his favorite song, “Baby Mine” from the Disney movie Dumbo.
On Kavaan’s first day in Cambodia, he met three female elephants that will be living with him at the sanctuary.
Kavaan was seen socializing with the other elephants on his very first day in Cambodia, reaching through the enclosure bars to touch the trunk of the female elephant housed beside him. It was the first time Kavaan had touched another elephant since the death of his mate, Saheli in 2012.
After so long alone, Kavaan has been slowly re-socialized with the other elephants, he will not be separated from them for long.
‘We see that he is interested to interact with one of the three females,’ Sok Hong, president of the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) and Kaavans new caretaker said.
Kavaan has adapted
exceedingly well, his swaying has completely stopped, he has been playing with elephant-sized toys to build up muscles he is not used to using, and is being trained to forage for food in the wild.
Recently finished being prepared, Kavaans’ new home in the wild consists of 30 acres of protected land located in the northern plains of Cambodia, near the border to Thailand.
The protected region is bordered by lands in other countries that are also protected, ensuring that the animals are safe from human predators.
The sanctuary contains lowland forest as well as the largest swamp in the country and has plenty of good grazing land. It is part of the Northern Plains Dry Forest Corridor in the Lower Mekong River region. Among other modifications made for the elephants, was the installation of a pond big enough for Kavaan to fully submerge himself in.
Kavaan has shown a fondness for water.
Moving an elephant into a 30-acre free-range habitat is not as simple as just opening up a gate and letting him in. Huge pillars were installed surrounding the area to keep Kaavan from wandering into unprotected land and lots of metalwork and pumps were installed to support modifications made for him such as his huge outdoor swimming pool. Overall, the cost of construction for Kavaans’ forest home was about $250,000, most of which came directly from donations around the world. For a $300 donation, the donor can have a plaque with their name on one of the posts surrounding Kavaans’ home.
As the time nears for the gates of Kavaans new home to be opened, Kavaan’s support network is buzzing with excitement. Reports are great, Kavaan eats breakfast each day with a female friend. Because two of the females don’t get along, the females are rotated to allow them all time to socialize with Kavaan. Once Kavaan is moved into his area, by the end of July, Kavaan’s girlfriends will be allowed to visit him without the bars separating them.
DiPloh and Sarai Mia are the two females who will be spending time in Kavaans’ area. Elephants are good at letting you know what they want, the elephants apparently let their caretakers know when they want to visit each other.
A documentary about Kavaan’s incredible journey is being Streamed on the Smithsonian channel. Updates on Kavaan and his family can be found on YouTube.
Written by : Lorry Kaller 2021
Baby mine, don’t you cry
Baby mine, dry your eyes
Rest your head close to my heart
Never to part, baby of mine
Little one when you play
Don’t you mind what you say
Let those eyes sparkle and shine
Never a tear, baby of mine
If they knew sweet little you
They’d end up loving you too
All those same people who scold you
What they’d give just for
The right to hold you
From your head to your toes
You’re not much, goodness knows
But you’re so precious to me
Cute as can be, baby of mine
Songwriters: Ned Washington / Frank Churchill
Baby Mine (Dumbo) lyrics © Walt Disney Music Company, Bourne Co., Bourne Co 1981
Kaavans song by Cher