Kaavan the elephant interacts with another elephant at a sanctuary in Oddar Meanchey Province, Cambodia, Dec. 1, 2020.
Kaavan the elephant interacts with another elephant at a sanctuary in Oddar Meanchey Province, Cambodia, Dec. 1, 2020. (Four Paws - Global Animal Welfare Organisation/Handout)

ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - An Asian elephant dubbed the “world’s loneliest” has encountered another of his species for the first time in eight years after having been flown to a Cambodian wildlife sanctuary from years of abusive captivity in a Pakistan zoo.

The Austrian-based animal welfare group Four Paws International, which arranged for the relocation of Kaavan the elephant, released Tuesday a picture of him touching another elephant with his trunk in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

“We can now officially call him the "former loneliest elephant in the world"! Seeing Kaavan interacting with other elephants is a huge moment for us but more importantly for Kaavan,” tweeted the Austrian group.

Kaavan was gifted to Pakistan in 1985 by Sri Lanka when he was one year old. The elephant was held in chains for years in an insufficient enclosure and was forced to perform in front of visitors in the poorly managed Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, the Pakistani capital.

In 2012, his partner, Saheli, died due to a leg infection, prompting activists to call Kaavan the world’s loneliest elephant. Campaigners say the heartbreaking image of Kaavan standing above the body of his partner shocked the world.

Kaavan, weighing 5-tons and loaded in a custom-built enclosure, left Pakistan before dawn on Monday and arrived in Cambodia after an eight-hour flight, where he was welcomed by chanting Buddhist monks and sent on his way to the wildlife sanctuary.

Pakistani Minister on Climate Change Amin Aslam in a statement “wished Kaavan more joyful days throughout the rest of his life” in Cambodia.

“We are sure about it being the right step to retire Kaavan after spending over three decades in captivity,” Aslam said.

In this photo released by Cambodia's Environment Ministry, Kraavan walks at Kulen Prom Tep Wildlife Sanctuary in Oddar Meanchey province, Dec. 1, 2020.

In addition to Four Paws, American actor/singer Cher and her animal welfare group Free the Wild helped secure Kaavan’s release.

Cher arrived in Pakistan on Friday where she also met with Prime Minister Imran Khan. Aslam said she also spent time at the Islamabad Zoo to provide “moral support” for the elephant.

“Cher has arrived and is so grateful for the help and support from the people of Pakistan to allow Kaavan to move to Cambodia and live out the rest of his life in peace and with dignity," Free the Wild co-founder Mark Cowne said in an email to VOA.

Pop singer Cher gestures in front of the crate of Kaavan the Asian elephant upon his arrival in Cambodia from Pakistan at Siem Reap International Airport in Siem Reap, Nov. 30, 2020.

An initial medical examination conducted in September by experts at Four Paws showed the elephant’s nails had cracked and were overgrown due to improper care and an insufficient enclosure with flooring that damaged its feet.

The report also found Kaavan overweight and suffering from a stereotypical behavior because of his loneliness, the cause of his shaking head back and forth for hours, said Dr. Amir Khalil of the Austrian group.

The vet, who accompanied the elephant on his journey to Cambodia, told VOA before departing Pakistan the animal had lost weight, with an improved health condition, citing several months of training and treatment Kaavan underwent at the zoo.