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A SONG AND A PRAYER: Kaavan, the world’s loneliest elephant, is finally going free

Kaavan's new home in Cambodia is the one-million acre Kulen-Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary. He will finally have a chance to be an elephant, and to live in a place he can call home.

M ILYAS KHAN: For decades, the world’s loneliest elephant has entertained crowds from his small, barren patch of land in a Pakistani zoo. The visitors would call for more as he saluted them, prompted by handlers who poked him with nailed bull hooks to make him perform for the money which lined their pockets. Around him, animals disappeared from their enclosures, rumoured to be bound for the plates of the wealthy, while his only companion died, allegedly of sepsis brought on by those bull-hook nails digging deep into her skin.

And for years, it seemed that no one cared about the elephant’s lonely fate. His wounds became infected and the chains around his legs slowly left permanent scars. He drifted slowly into psychosis and obesity. But on Sunday, the world’s loneliest elephant will finally leave behind his desolate enclosure for a new life on the other side of the continent, thanks to the determination of a coalition of determined volunteers… Kaavan will fly… across Asia to Cambodia, where he could live out the rest of his years in a “protected contact” sanctuary…

The story of Kaavan begins with a prayer and ends in a song… At Islamabad Zoo, Kaavan’s job was to stand at the fence to entertain the crowds during opening hours, raise his trunk as a begging bowl when his mahout, or handler, prodded him with a bull hook, passing him the money the crowd gave him. Kaavan’s nights were spent idling around his small half-acre enclosure, about the same size as half a football pitch and containing a hut with concrete floor. When volunteers from Four Paws International (FPI) animal rights group compiled a report later, they found “a dry moat with narrow concrete walls; compacted soil; no other natural loose substrate, no trees, logs, bushes, rocks, tires or any other structures”.

But at least Kaavan was not lonely. For years, his constant companion was Saheli, an Urdu word for a ‘female friend’ – an elephant brought in from Bangladesh in early 1990s. The need for such companionship cannot be underestimated. Wildlife experts say elephants are cognitively sophisticated and sentient, almost like humans. They have nearly the same life span – between 60 to 70 years in the wild – and have similar emotions, forming strong family bonds. They also mourn their dead.

Saheli died in 2012. The official version of events is that she died of a heart attack due to the hot weather, but Mohammad bin Naveed, aN FIZ volunteer, alleges it was actually sepsis. “At some point the unsterilised nails of the mahout’s bull hook went too far into her skin. She got gangrene and died of a septic shock. Everyone knows this, but won’t admit it,” he says.

Kaavan – already bereft of the natural environment he needed – had been acting increasingly aggressively in the years leading up to her death. He spent prolonged periods in chains from 2000. After she died, he got worse… Kaavan was sick, that much was clear. He was also worryingly overweight, a result of the high sugar diet his keepers fed him. But no one wanted to lose the zoo’s star attraction. What Kaavan needed, it turned out, was an even bigger star to come to his aid.

Cher first learned of Kaavan’s plight in 2016. The Oscar-winning actress and singer, who cofounded Free the Wild, a wildlife protection charity, hired a legal team to press for the elephant’s freedom. When the court order freeing him was announced in May, the singer called it one of the “greatest moments” of her life… But the fight for Kaavan and the other animals in the zoo was not over. The problem was tossed from one department to another, before finally ending up in Islamabad’s High Court.

In June, the order came to close the zoo for good… She is expected to travel on from Pakistan to Kaavan’s new home in Cambodia, the one-million acre Kulen-Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, where volunteers and staff work to protect the natural habitant and house a wide range of endangered species. Kaavan may still have problems overcoming his psychological issues and adjusting to a natural environment, his friend Dr Khalil says, but he “finally has a chance to be an elephant, and to live in a place he can call home”. SOURCE…

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