Two things struck me as I entered Marghazar zoo, Islamabad for the first time; you could see Kaavan as soon as you crossed the threshold and the inadequate size of his enclosure. Over a decade of working in animal welfare hadn’t prepared me for just how emotional it would be to see Kaavan and join the FOUR PAWS team for his final days in Pakistan.
This giant lived for 35 years in a barren enclosure with little stimulation. Nowadays all the variety he had was a bit of dry grass, some dust or a small pool area. Insufficient for the needs of a 5 tonne elephant. It was also hard to ignore the swaying that he did on repeat. This move was by many believed to be dancing, but I just saw desperation and a plea for help.
Elephants are herd animals and seeing Kaavan alone was heart-breaking to see. I have been lucky enough to see elephants in the wild and you rarely see them alone, so to see poor Kaavan so isolated was even more saddening. But, three female elephants were now patiently awaiting his arrival. Repeatedly I witnessed Kaavan trundle across the enclosure to his crate for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It was clear that he recognised our team and our calls for him and associated them with his favourite pastime, eating. What is it they say about the way to our hearts is through our stomachs, I think it’s true for elephants too! But this feeding process was essential to help ease the stress of the travels and ensure that he would cope in the crate during the transfer which not only involved a seven-hour flight to Cambodia but also the time required to safely move him from the enclosure to the airport.
I was surprised just how much Kaavan’s story captured the hearts of so many. From Adelaide to Anglesey and LA to Leigh-on-Sea, everyone knows of his story. But his fans include A-list stars too. One of his biggest campaigners was Cher and her NGO Free the Wild. They were there to wave him off to his new life and welcome him to Cambodia. Cher’s tireless support of Kaavan and cries for a better life led to us all working together.
They say it takes a village to raise a child, but I now believe that it takes a world to move an elephant.
The FOUR PAWS team, consisting of Dr Amir Khalil, Dr Marina Ivanova, Juno Van Zon, Ingo Schmidinger, Dr Frank Göritz and Marion Lombard were responsible for every aspect of the transfer of Kaavan. The training of Kaavan was in part to also help him shed the pounds – sadly a diet consisting solely of sugar cane for years on end resulted in an overweight and malnourished elephant. But we also needed to build various crates too. All of this involved experts coming together from across the globe with one goal; to move Kaavan and rid him of the moniker ‘worlds loneliest elephant’.
I admit that more than a few tears were shed on the day of his relocation, seeing the emotion and relief on the faces of our team and the local Pakistani animal activists that fought for so many years for this moment, was all too much. When he was loaded on the transport truck no-one could quite belief what had been achieved. In front of an audience of international and national media, Government officials, the military and the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board, a silence had repeatedly descended over proceedings, only for ripples of applause to echo out when we reached that truck. All the while Kaavan was calmly in his crate unaware of the life-changing moment that had just taken place. What followed was a military escort to Islamabad International Airport the boarding onto a Russian plane capable of carrying the elephant and all his food provisions for the seven-hour flight. Despite all of this nothing phased Kaavan and the team said he took this all in his stride and you’d think he had done it all before. Finally the plane doors opened at Siem Reap airport in Cambodia and the final stage of the trip started. Now as I type this Kaavan is adjusting to his new life and has even said a brief hello to one of his new friends. His first contact with another elephant in eight years; cue more tears!
Kaavan’s story is one that should never have happened, but sadly he is not the only animal to endure such a life. His story has highlighted the suffering of countless wild animals in captivity. Kaavan’s story shows there is hope and it also depicts so much of what FOUR PAWS stands for – revealing suffering, rescuing animals in need and protecting them.