Cher helped rescue Kaavan, a 36-year-old elephant, from a zoo in Pakistan (Credit: Friends of Islamabad Zoo/Facebook)
By Hannah Shariff / DOGO News
ORIGINAL ARTICLE & VIDEOS
The cameraman zooms in on the anxious elephant, who paces back and forth. However, the pachyderm’s demeanor instantly calms down upon hearing a soothing ballad from Disney’s Cinderella, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” sung to him by none other than American singer and actress Cher. The now-viral poignant video, published on YouTube on November 30, 2020, was the culmination of the pop singer and animal activist’s four-year-long quest to save Kaavan, “The world’s loneliest elephant.”
Kaavan was just a year old when Sri Lankan officials gifted him to Pakistan in 1985. The now 36-year-old Asian elephant spent a large part of the next three decades shackled in chains in a confined space at the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan. He was only brought out periodically to entertain zoo visitors by raising his trunk as a begging bowl when his mahout prodded him with a bullhook — a rod with a sharp hook. To make matters worse, his partner Saheli, a female elephant who arrived at the zoo in 1990, died in 2012, leaving the social animal with no companion. Lonely and isolated, Kaavan’s mental and physical health rapidly deteriorated.
The animal’s plight spurred activists to start a #FreeKaavan social media campaign that urged Pakistani officials to move the mammal to an elephant sanctuary. However, their pleas fell on deaf ears. In 2016, Cher was scrolling through her Twitter feed when she noticed messages by fans urging her to help Kaavan. “‘They would not stop saying ‘Cher, you have to do something, you have to fix this, you have to save him,’ ” she said in a Smithsonian Channel interview. “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?”‘
After much deliberation, she reached out to fellow animal activists Mark Cowne and his wife, Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne, to help her launch a social media campaign to improve Kaavan’s living conditions. They first pushed for Kaavan to be unshackled and then persuaded the zoo to add a tin roof over his shed, water in the pool, and a tire for him to play with.
While the reforms were encouraging, the team soon realized that more needed to be done and established Free the Wild — a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing Kaavan and other wild animals in similar situations. It took over four years, but in 2020, an Islamabad high court ordered the Marghazar Zoo to shut down and relocate all its animal residents to new homes.
For Kaavan, that meant taking a seven-hour flight to the beautiful Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. Located in the provinces of Preah Vihear, Siem Reap, and Odor Mean Chey in the Kingdom of Cambodia, the approximately one-million-acre refuge is home to many wild animals, including tigers, bears, leopards, and, of course, Asian elephants.
According to Kaavan’s new keeper, Sok Hong, the elephant is adjusting extremely well to his new habitat and has even picked his favorite female elephant from the three he has been mingling with since arrival. Once the pachyderm has been completely rehabilitated, he and his three female companions will be released and allowed to roam freely in the sanctuary’s expansive grounds. As for Cher? She is already busy trying to free Bua Noi, a female gorilla who has spent the last three decades in a cage in the dilapidated Pata Zoo, located on the top floor of a Bangkok shopping mall!