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An elephant who attracted worldwide attention has arrived at his new home after some help from pop icon Cher. The elephant named Kaavan was flown to a sanctuary in Cambodia where he will now live with three other elephants.
By SOPHENG CHEANG Associated Press
November 30, 2020, 1:15 PM
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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- The pachyderm dubbed the “ world’s loneliest elephant ” after languishing alone for years in a Pakistani zoo was greeted on his arrival in Cambodia on Monday by chanting Buddhist monks and was then sent on his way to a wildlife sanctuary.
Like other travelers during these times, Kaavan needed to be tested for COVID-19 before his flight. Once his large metal crate was safely on board, Kaavan was provided with in-flight snacks — 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of them — for the seven-hour journey.
Kaavan was not stressed during the flight, eating his food and even getting a little bit of sleep standing in his crate, said Amir Khalil, a veterinarian who accompanied him on the flight and works with Four Paws, the Vienna-headquartered animal rescue group that organized the move.
“He behaves like a frequent flier. The flight was uneventful, which is all you can ask for when you transfer an elephant,” Khalil said.
The 36-year-old, 4,080 kilogram (9,000 pound) elephant received a warm welcome on arrival in Cambodia from officials, conservationists and the Buddhist monks, who chanted prayers for his harmony and prosperity.
Kaavan, a 1985 gift from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, had been living in the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad with his partner Saheli, who died in 2012. The zoo fell on hard times and conditions got so bad that a court in the Pakistani capital ordered the zoo closed in August.
The plight of the male Asian elephant has captured worldwide attention, including from the American singer and actor Cher, who has been closely involved in his rescue and was in Cambodia for Kaavan's arrival.
Cher’s animal welfare group Free the Wild has worked with Four Paws and the American syndicated columnist and philanthropist, Eric Margolis, to relocate Kaavan — a mission that’s cost about $400,000.
According to Four Paws, very few adult elephants have ever been relocated by plane, so preparations were arduous.
Veterinarians and elephant experts working for Four Paws spent three months in Islamabad, coaching Kaavan three times a day on how to enter and exit safely and without stress his four-ton travel crate, which includes a system that can hold up to 200 liters (53 gallons) of urine.
He was also dangerously overweight due to his unsuitable diet of around 250 kilograms (550 pounds) of sugar cane each day. With Khalil’s help, Kaavan lost 1,000 pounds (450 kilograms) over the past three months.
Kaavan’s wounds are emotional as well as physical. He would spend his days throwing his head from side to side, a stereotypical sign of boredom and misery in an elephant, said Martin Bauer, a spokesman for Four Paws.
The loss of his mate Saheli took a toll on Kaavan’s mental health. Elephants are social animals that thrive on the company of other elephants, Bauer explained. For Kaavan, the last eight years have been akin to living in quarantine — something the world has come to understand all too well amid the coronavirus pandemic, he said.
Late Monday, Kaaven was being driven by truck to a camp in northern Cambodia where he should be able to leave his crate on Tuesday.
“Once Kaavan feels at home in a controlled setting, he will be released in a wildlife sanctuary, in Oddar Meanchey province, in the northern section of Cambodia, where some 600 Asian elephants live in peace and tranquility," said a statement from Neth Pheaktra, a spokesman for the Environment Ministry. “Pachyderms can live for many years and even at 36, we hope that he will contribute to the gene pool.”
A 36-year-old overweight Asian elephant, who has spent much of his life languishing alone in captivity, is on his way to a sanctuary in Cambodia -- thanks in part to the efforts of American pop star Cher.
Pakistan's only Asian elephant has spent years in grim conditions in a controversial Islamabad zoo, where he suffered from a lack of exercise as well as cracked and malformed nails due to living in an inappropriate structure.
After Kaavan's partner died in 2012, he was dubbed the "world's loneliest elephant" -- and since 2016, Cher has been part of a huge social media campaign to relocate him.
Earlier this year, Islamabad's High Court closed the zoo over its poor conditions and gave animal welfare organization Four Paws permission to remove Kaavan, who Sri Lanka gifted to Pakistan 35 years ago, when he was a baby, according to the organization.
Early Monday local time in Pakistan, Free The Wild, a charity Cher co-founded, wrote on Instagram that Kaavan was being loaded onto a plane and beginning his journey to Cambodia.
Before the flight, specialists from Four Paws trained the elephant for the small enclosure and loud noises he'd experience on the flight, using bananas and other treats.
Non-profit Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary said in a Facebook post that Kaavan will now live in a huge jungle enclosure, where most of his food will be provided naturally -- although he'll also get fruit treats to "satisfy his sweet tooth." Three other elephants live at the sanctuary.
Cher found out about Kaavan from people on Twitter, according to a statement from the Smithsonian Channel, which is producing a documentary on the elephant's story.
"I thought, 'how can I fix this? How can I save an elephant who's been shackled to a shed for 17 years and who is a thousand miles away?'," Cher said. "This is Free The Wild's first big rescue and I am so proud."
Ahead of his trip, Cher traveled to Pakistan and serenaded Kaavan with the song "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes."
On Friday, after meeting Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, she tweeted her thanks to him "for making it possible for me to take Kaavan to Cambodia."
A statement from the Prime Minister's office said former cricket star Khan had thanked Cher, and invited her to participate further in environmental initiatives in Pakistan.
Additional reporting by Reuters