Kaavan flies to a new life in Cambodia | Sunday Observer
After a prolonged campaign

Kaavan flies to a new life in Cambodia

6 December, 2020

‘If he was a gift from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, we had the authority to reclaim him after getting to know that he is not well taken care of’ said the Director of Species Conservation and Project Manager of the Tree Society of Sri Lanka, Pubudu Weerarathna, speaking to the Sunday Observer concerning Kaavan, the elephant who left Sri Lanka as a baby elephant for a Pakistani zoo. Kaavan spent more than three decades there, including eight lonely years and was transferred to Cambodia from Pakistan on Monday, November 30 .

Kaavan’s trip to Cambodia ultimately marked his salvation for which he was silently yearning throughout the years. The journey was also the result of prolonged campaigning and battling by Oscar-winning American singer and actor, Cher, American columnist and philanthropist, Eric Margolis, animal rights groups including ‘Four Paws’ (Vienna-headquartered animal rescue group) and ‘Free the Wild’ over the past years.

In 1985, the government sent Kaavan as a gift to former Pakistani President, General Zia-ul-Haq. Kaavan had been just one-year old at the time of the transfer and he had been living in the ‘Marghazar zoo’ in Islamabad with his mate, Saheli since then till 2012.

In 2002, Kaavan had been chained owing to his violent behaviour but it has been reported that he had been chained during much of his stay at the zoo thereafter. In 2012, his mate Saheli has died succumbing to maltreatment and negligence by the zookeepers. Subsequently, the years passed and seclusion had been slowly affecting Kaavan until his isolation aggravated into a profound mental illness. Despite the seclusion, he had been kept in a small enclosure without even proper shelter and relief. It is also reported that, Kaavan was unhealthily overweight owing to his unbalanced diet including around 250 kilograms of sugarcane every day. Fortunately, over the past three months, Kaavan has lost around 1000 pounds of weight under the care of veterinarians.

Kaavan’s behaviour

Within the past couple of years, Kaavan’s behaviour had changed. According to Martin Bauer, the spokesman for ‘Four Paws’,elephants are sociable animals that thrive in the company of other elephants. But Kaavan has been spending his days bobbing his head from side to side constantly which is identified as a sign of depression and mental illness in an elephant. Depending on many factors: how badly he was treated and how alone he was, Kaavan had been suffering from both emotional and physical wounds.

Kaavan was coached and guided for three months before he took his journey. The veterinarians and experts from ‘Four Paws’ have coached Kaavan on how to enter and exist his crate which was a custom-built travel crate. This special crate carries a system which can hold up to 200 litres of urine. The crate was hoisted on to a lorry and taken to the Islamabad airport on Sunday, November 29. Kaavan was provided with 200 kilograms of in-flight snacks during his seven hour journey to Cambodia.

The trip

Amir Khalil, a veterinarian and International Director of Project Development of ‘Four Paws’ also accompanied him and was with Kaavan for months before the trip. After coaxing Kaavan into the crate, it was lifted into the cargo plane, a Russian transport jumbo jet. Kaavan was also tested for Covid-19 before his flight. By the time Kaavan’s trip was arranged, very few adult elephants had been transferred by plane because the undertaking is very tedious and tiresome. The project for Kaavan’s ultimate freedom has cost about $400,000 and all the substantial disbursement were done by Cher, her group and the local Pakistani activists.

“Cher has quite a big platform so we have really appreciated what she has done for Kaavan since 2016” said Martin Bauer. Speaking about Kaavan’s conduct during the trip, Amir Khalil mentioned that Kaavan was not stressed or perturbed, he was having some of his in-flight snacks and sleeping peacefully. “The flight was uneventful, which is all you can ask for when you transfer an elephant” Khalil added. Cher paid several visits to the ‘Marghazar Zoo’ in Islamabad providing Kaavan with moral support before he was prepared for his flight ensuring everything was going to work out well. She was in Pakistan until the departure of Kaavan and she was at the Islamabad airport to oversee Kaavan’s departure. Cher also met Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan and other government officials on November 27. She was awfully gratified at the success of the project.

“My wishes have finally come true” she said delightedly thanking all the charities which worked on this project with her.” We have been counting down to this moment and dreaming of it for so long to see Kaavan transported out of the Islamabad zoo and it will remain with us forever”.

Soeaking about Pakistan, Jayantha Jayawardene, Managing Trustee, Biodiversity and Elephant Conservation Trust and member of the Asian Elephant Specialist Group said that Pakistan has no culture and history with elephants where they take care of them.

Elephants and animal rights in Pakistan

“There are no wild elephants in Pakistan. They treated Kaavan as if he is a dog. They feared that Kaavan would hit his mahout, so they isolated him” he said. According to records, Kaavan was the only Asian elephant in Pakistan.

Conservationists and rights groups have continuously agitated about the worsening poor living conditions at the Islamabad zoo as a consequence of the lack of legislation in Pakistan addressing animal welfare. In addition, the zoo officials have also denied the fact that Kaavan was kept under suboptimal and deficient conditions and chained.

Eventually in May this year, Kaavan was ordered to be transferred to a sanctuary with better living conditions and fellow elephants.

This agitation also compelled the Pakistani judges to close the ‘Marghazar Zoo in August and mandate the relocation of other animals including lions, bears and birds probably until the zoo upgrades to better animal living conditions. Earlier this year, animal cruelty was declared a punishable offense in Pakistan. Yet, the animal rights activists say that Pakistan’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act which was passed in 1890, is now obsolete.

As reports indicate, the punishments only include fines. Considering the plight of Kaavan and other animals who lived under substandard conditions in Pakistan until this point, the rescue workers said, “fines alone cannot deter abuse”. “There’s a lot of improvement to be made,” said Rab Nawaz from the ‘World Wildlife Federation’ in Pakistan.

Kaavan’s destination, Cambodia

Kaavan landed at Siem Reap in north-west Cambodia on Monday, November 30 and was heartily welcomed by officials, conservationists, Cher and Buddhist bhikkhus amid the chanting of prayers.

He was then sent to a 25 000-acre Cambodian wildlife sanctuary that shelters more than 80 elephants and is staffed with professionals and has other facilities. Kaavan would be initially kept in a small designated section of the sanctuary from where he can see other elephants until he gets familiar with the surroundings.

Pubudu Weerarathna suspects that Kaavan might have been transferred to Cambodia instead of Sri Lanka because the reputation regarding elephants in Sri Lanka is not actually a good one. According to Pubudu, in Cambodia, there is a vast population of domestic elephants and they were used for the logging industry earlier.

He said that Cambodia too has issues relating to their high population of elephants. However, his point is that our responsible authorities (the Zoological Department and the Department of Wildlife Conservation) could have probed into this matter earlier because they took the first steps in sending Kaavan to Pakistan and they are obliged to look into how Kaavan was living there and how he was being treated.

“Anyway, it’s better if Sri Lanka reclaimed Kaavan, because then only the other countries get to know that if they mistreat an animal taken from us, we still have the authority and the right to take it back and that is our policy” Pubudu said..

Amid all the insecurities Kaavan has found a right spot to spend the rest of his life with other elephants after all. He will eventually overcome the years of depression and meet a good mate and that would be only because of the brave battles fought by a few people.