The singer and actress Cher, age 74, has succeeded in her campaign to rescue Kaavan, a lonely, overweight 35-year-old bull elephant who has languished in an Islamabad zoo for 35 years and lost his partner in 2012.
His departure comes following years of campaigning by animal rights activists, led by Cher, who helped secure his trip to the Cambodian sanctuary. He had been kept in the horrifying conditions of the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad which was ordered to be closed earlier this year.
Kaavan is now being airlifted to his new home, a 25,000-acre wildlife sanctuary in Siem Reap in Northwestern Cambodia where he will spend his retirement with other elephants.
Earlier this year, Kaavan was diagnosed by veterinarians as both overweight and malnourished earlier this year and also suffers from behavioral issues.
The pitiful treatment at the dilapidated facility sparked an uproar from animal rights activists after Cher’s call to action campaign on social media began earlier this year.
‘My wishes have finally come true’, Cher said in a statement thanking her charity Free The Wild.
‘We have been counting down to this moment and dreaming of it for so long and to finally see Kaavan transported out of (the Islamabad) zoo will remain with us forever.’
Kaavan’s case and the woeful conditions at the zoo resulted in a judge this year ordering all the animals to be moved.
Pakistan’s high court in May ordered the closure of Marghazar Zoo in the capital of Islamabad, where Kaavan has lived for much of his life.
‘Thanks to Cher and also to local Pakistani activists, Kaavan’s fate made headlines around the globe and this contributed to the facilitation of his transfer,’ said Martin Bauer, a spokesman for Four Paws International – an animal welfare group that has spearheaded the relocation effort.
Mr Bauer lauded the powerful impact celebrity voices can have for animal rights, saying: ‘Celebrities lending their voices to good causes are always welcomed, as they help starting public discourse and raising pressure on responsible authorities.’
Experts spent hours coaxing a slightly sedated Kaavan into a specially constructed metal crate – at one point using ropes to help pull him in – that was to be hoisted onto a lorry and taken to Islamabad airport.
From there, Kaavan will be sent via a Russian transport jumbo jet for the lengthy flight to Siem Reap in northwestern Cambodia. The plane will stop for refuelling in New Delhi.
Cher spent several days in the capital to visit Kaavan before the trip to a 25,000-acre Cambodian wildlife sanctuary, with Prime Minister Imran Khan personally thanking the star.
She met with Mr Khan on Friday and his office released a video of the singer sitting with the prime minister outside on the expansive grounds of his residence.
Cher was due to fly to Cambodia on Sunday to be in the Southeast Asian nation when the elephant arrives.
Officials said Kaavan will initially be kept in a small designated section of the park where he can see other elephants.
‘Sending him to a place where he can be with other elephants of his kind … is really the right choice,’ climate change minister Malik Amin Aslam told AFP.
‘We will be happy to see him happy in Cambodia and we hope he finds a partner very soon.’
On Tuesday, with music, treats and balloons, friends of Kaavan threw a farewell party for the creature ahead of his relocation.
The zoo was decorated with balloons for the occasion and banners wishing the animal well. ‘We will miss you Kaavan,’ read one of the signs.
Dubbed by the press as the ‘world’s loneliest elephant’, Kaavan is the only Asian elephant in Pakistan – the tiny number of other elephants at other zoos are African.
A team of vets and experts from Four Paws have spent months working with Kaavan to get him ready for the trip to Cambodia, which has included training the elephant to enter the massive metal transport crate that will be placed in a cargo plane for the seven-hour flight.
Zoo officials have in the past denied Kaavan was kept in substandard conditions or chained, claiming instead the creature was pining for a new mate after his partner, Saheli, who also arrived from Sri Lanka, died in 2012.
But Kaavan’s behaviour – including signs of distress such as continual head-bobbing – raised concerns of mental illness.
Activists also said Kaavan was not properly sheltered from Islamabad’s searing summer temperatures.
Rights groups and conservationists have said that the abysmal conditions at the Islamabad zoo resulted in part from the lack of legislation in Pakistan aimed at protecting animal welfare.
‘There’s a lot of improvement to be made,’ said Rab Nawaz with the World Wildlife Federation in Pakistan.
‘Kaavan is just one animal. There’s lots of animals in Pakistan… which are in miserable conditions.’