It was a not so cold yet crisp November morning and Islamabad’s Marghazar Zoo was brimming with energy. Just hours ahead of long-term resident Kaavan’s forever departure, the expansive grounds were the location of a shoot for iconic songstress Cher’s much talked about documentary for the Smithsonian Channel.When we arrived on set, the cameras were rolling. In pin drop silence, a not so large crowd stood still, with all eyes affixed in the direction of the soon to be empty Elephant Enclosure. I craned my neck to the left and to the right in a bid to get a glimpse of the action but to no avail as multiple carefully positioned large sheets of thermocol propped up on adjustable metal stands blocked my view.
I finally managed to find a precarious viewing angle. Clad in a black and white plaid shirt atop jeans and knee-high leather boots, Kaavan’s guardian angel, Cher stood at the right edge of the enclosure, feeding the ‘world’s loneliest elephant’ as he had popularly come to be known. The carefully portioned early morning snack included a medley of watermelon wedges, short lengths of sugar cane, bananas aplenty and a generous dose of Sinatra that Kaavan has grown to love courtesy of his best friend, Dr. Amir Khalil of Four Paws, the global animal welfare organization mandated to orchestrate the big move to Siem Reap.
The road to Kaavan’s freedom has been an ‘incredibly bumpy journey’, one that took almost five years in the making. Cher explains how she learnt of his plight: “I get a lot of information from my friends on Twitter. Several of them brought to my attention the issue of Kaavan. I started looking into it and wanted to get him to a beautiful sanctuary somewhere”.
Despite no known precedence of animal relocations from Pakistan and her unfamiliarity with the terrain, Cher decided to take on the fight for Kaavan’s freedom. At the onset, “I didn’t know it would be different. I only knew that I had to do everything in my power to help. I co founded ‘Free The Wild’, a charity to help animals in captivity and Kaavan became a priority,” she says.
It took months upon months of endless negotiations with zoo employees and officials, municipalities, local and international wildlife associations and authorities as well as governments to secure Kaavan’s freedom from 35 years of neglect.
Kaavan’s story dates back to circa 1985, when he arrived in Islamabad from Sri Lanka at the age of a year and half – whether as gratitude for Pakistan backing the Lankan army during the insurgency or as a gift for Gen. Zia-ul-Haq’s daughter, one can’t be sure. Kaavan spent his days entertaining visitors to the zoo and his nights wandering the half-acre concrete floored enclosure he lived in.
A few years later, in the early 1990’s, Kaavan was joined by Saheli, a female elephant brought in from Bangladesh. Over the decade the duo spent together they developed a strong bond and Kaavan finally found the companionship he had long craved.
Sadly Saheli died in 2012 leaving Kaavan heartbroken to mourn her. The official version indicates her cause of death to be a heart attack whereas it is believed it was actually sepsis that claimed Saheli’s life.
Kaavan, who had been devoid of a natural environment for decades, was already showing signs of aggression, and post Saheli’s passing, his zoochosis was even more evident which brought about a decline in his physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.
It was in 2016 that Four Paws was first invited to visit Islamabad and assess the facilities at Marghazar Zoo and the condition of its resident animals. “At the time, the team comprised Dr. Frank Göritz and myself. We handed to the authorities a report with obligatory modifications necessary for the facility and for the animals especially Kaavan,” recalls Dr. Amir Khalil.
Four years later, following the death of the zoo’s lions, based on an order of the Islamabad High Court, Four Paws was once again requested to visit Pakistan. This time to assist authorities with the relocation of the remaining animals at the zoo, as well as to conduct a medical examination on Kaavan in a bid to determine if his condition allowed for him to be shifted.
“When we came back to visit in the August of 2020, we found the situation to be far worse. The animals were in distress due to their compromised well being coupled with poor nutrition – some had wounds and infections due to which emergency surgical procedures were required. There was a lack of medical records for the animals and microchips weren’t even a consideration,” elaborates Dr. Amir.
Over the last few months, the Four Paws team worked tirelessly with the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board and local NGOs and activists to reverse the damage and improve the situation in a bid to build capacity.
It was during this time that a very special equation developed. Dr. Amir narrates: “Kaavan and I became good friends, this was not the plan. Over the past 30 years, I have never developed a bond of this nature during any of my rescue missions – this was my first such experience. As we prepared Kaavan for his medical examination, I began spending a lot of time with him – over four hours every day, split between the morning and the afternoon. It was hot and Kaavan and I had only just started getting acquainted. I began singing to keep myself entertained. I soon noticed Kaavan too was listening with tears in his eyes. Unknowingly, not only did I manage to get Kaavan’s attention but also began to understand his plight.
“Over the weeks, Kaavan became a big fan of Frank Sinatra with ‘I do it my way’ being his favourite melody. It was a unique and humbling experience to see a giant elephant letting go of his pain and being willing to forgive.
And in a matter of just a few days, we became good friends and Kaavan grew to trust me. As we worked together, Kaavan got calmer – he swayed his head less in anxiousness and also lost weight and became nimble and agile like a young boy,” he adds.
Preparations for Kaavan’s big move were nothing short of a carefully planned ‘logistical operation’. From the creation of a tailor-made transport crate to arranging the appropriate aircraft for the flight across, coupled with countless hours of training to ensure his safety and comfort, it all took a bit of doing. Many permits from the governments of Pakistan and Cambodia, countless health certificates and Covid-19 test results later, it all came together perfectly. The process was endless and exhausting and had the teams responsible on their feet for days but at the end of it, it was all totally worth it. Dr. Amir and the Four Paws team spent a few months in Islamabad whereas Cher and the Free The Wild team only a few days.
“I really didn’t get much of a chance to see the country. Moving Kaavan was very time consuming”, but “I met some wonderful people,” explains Cher.
With all the love and care that now surrounded him and decades of despair finally behind him, the world’s loneliest elephant was lonely no more. Kaavan was evidently in a happy place. His last lunch within the enclosure where he’d spent the past three and a half decades, was no ordinary one – a soulful rendition of ‘A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes’ was performed live by Cher, exclusively for him.
Dr. Amir recalls the moment: “When Cher visited Islamabad, I got a chance to sing mine and Kaavan’s song with her. She first sang one of her own songs for him, one I didn’t know the lyrics to, so I insisted on ‘I do it my way’, but of course. It was an absolute pleasure to stand beside her and sing – she is extremely humble and loves Kaavan very much. I joked with Cher and told her she must not be jealous of my beautiful voice”.
We asked Cher which one of her songs she’d dedicate to Kaavan and to Pakistan and why? “That’s an easy one: Believe!” she said. How very apt; it was unflinching belief and conviction that despite the odds made it all possible. The path-breaking initiative of Kaavan’s relocation is symbolic not only for Pakistan but also the world at large.
“I am grateful that the Pakistan government gave me permission to bring him to Cambodia. I hope Kaavan’s release will make way for the release of other animals encaged in the country,” she adds.
Inspired by Kaavan’s release, animal rights activists and supporters in Pakistan have been given the very impetus they needed to amplify their voice and pursue the cause. The call to shut down zoos across the country to free animals from captivity is echoing loud and clear, all around. Even a group of young teenagers in Karachi are campaigning to convert the city’s zoological gardens into a wildlife sanctuary. We asked Cher if she would in any way be able to help convert their dream into a reality “I think young people getting involved in animal rights activism is a great step toward allowing animals to live in freedom. Free the Wild is currently involved in many situations around the world”, she remarks.
Cher’s dedication is unwavering. We had to ask, from a glorious career in music to a champion of animal rights – what prompted the transition and why? Her answer was simple: “No transition. I can do many things at one time. I also started CherCares in the US which is helping supply PPE equipment to underserved communities. And I hope to get back out on the road to tour eventually.”
Kaavan’s freedom was a silver lining to an otherwise surreal year. In times when the onslaught of Covid19 saw the world suffering unparalleled fatalities and financial losses, one can’t thank enough all those who worked tirelessly to make the once unimaginable dream of Kaavan’s freedom a glorious reality and for reminding the world that every being matters.
This is your maiden visit to Pakistan – your first impressions of the country?
I really didn’t get much of a chance to see the country. Moving Kaavan was very time consuming.
What did you enjoy most about Pakistan and why?
I met some wonderful people there.
Post Kavaan’s release, your message to the people of Pakistan.
Wear a mask!
WE EXTEND OUR SPECIAL THANKS TO FREE THE WILD, FOUR PAWS AND M.ILYAS KHAN
FEATURE: YUSRA ASKARI
PHOTOGRAPHS: JAFFER HASSAN