After years of public outcry and campaigning from American singer and actor Cher, “the loneliest elephant in the world” embarked on a massive move from Pakistan to retirement in a Cambodian sanctuary on Sunday.
Cher has spent the past few days at the Islamabad Zoo to give moral support to Kaavan – an overweight 36-year-old bull elephant – whose pitiful treatment in the dilapidated facility has sparked uproar from animal rights groups and a lively social media campaign.
“My wishes have finally come true,” Cher said in a statement thanking her charity, Free The Wild.
“We are counting back to this moment and dreaming about it for so long and finally seeing Kaavan transported out of [the Islamabad] the zoo will stay with us forever.
Kaavan’s case and appalling conditions at the zoo led a judge this year to order all animals to be moved.
“Thanks to Cher and also local Pakistani activists, Kaavan’s plight made headlines around the world and this helped facilitate his transfer,” said Martin Bauer, spokesperson for Four Paws International, a group of animal welfare who led the resettlement effort.
Experts spent hours coaxing a slightly sedated Kaavan into a specially constructed metal crate, at one point using ropes to help pull him. She was hoisted into a truck and transported to Islamabad airport.
From there, Kaavan was to be sent via a Russian transport plane to Siem Reap, northwest Cambodia.
Cher, 74, spent several days in the Pakistani capital to visit Kaavan before the trip to a 10,000-hectare (25,000-acre) Cambodian wildlife reserve, with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan personally thanking her.
She was due to fly to Cambodia on Sunday to be in the Southeast Asian nation when the elephant arrives.
Officials said Kaavan would initially be kept in a small designated section of the park where he could see other elephants.
“Sending him to a place where he can be with other elephants of his species … is really the right choice,” Pakistani climate change minister Malik Amin Aslam told AFP.
“We will be happy to see him happy in Cambodia and we hope he will find a partner very soon. “
Dubbed by the press the loneliest elephant in the world, Kaavan was the only Asian elephant in Pakistan.
A team of veterinarians and experts from Four Paws spent months working with Kaavan to prepare him for the trip to Cambodia, which included training the elephant to enter the massive metal transport crate that would be placed in a cargo plane for the seven hour flight. .
Zoo officials have in the past denied that Kaavan was kept in substandard conditions or in chains, instead claiming that the creature craved a new mate after his partner died.
But Kaavan’s behavior – including signs of distress such as continuous head movements – raised concerns for his mental well-being.
Activists also said Kaavan was not adequately protected from the scorching summer temperatures in Islamabad.
Kaavan’s companion, Saheli, also arrived from Sri Lanka, died in 2012.
Rights groups and environmental activists have said the deplorable conditions at the Islamabad zoo were in part a result of Pakistan’s lack of legislation to protect animal welfare.
“There are a lot of improvements to be made,” said Rab Nawaz of the World Conservation Federation in Pakistan.
“Kaavan is just an animal. There are a lot of animals in Pakistan… which are in miserable conditions. ”
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