ISLAMABAD - Oscar-winning American singer-actor Cher briefly visited Pakistan Friday to mark the newly-found freedom of a 35-year-old elephant named Kaavan, who she campaigned to move out of captivity.
Cher’s arrival in Islamabad and other activities, however, were kept from the media for reasons not immediately known.
Kaavan, dubbed the world’s loneliest elephant, will be flown out of Pakistan on Sunday aboard a special cargo plane to better living conditions in a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia.
The elephant’s departure will effectively cap a years-long campaign by animal rights activists, including Cher, to rescue Kaavan who was gifted to Pakistan by Sri Lanka in 1985 when he was one year old.
Kaavan 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.
Kaavan lost his partner elephant, Saheli, in 2012. She died due to a leg infection caused by the chains. Campaigners say the heartbreaking image of Kaavan standing above the dead body of his partner shocked the world.
In 2016, Cher, who co-founded a wildlife protection charity named Free The Wild, or FTW, launched a #SaveKaavan campaign for his relocation.
Her charity, together with Austria-based FOUR PAWS, a global animal welfare group, has worked on Kaavan’s transfer to Cambodia.
Cher’s co-founder, Mark Cowne said they could not interact with media during the visit to Islamabad because of pressing engagements.
"Cher had 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," Cowne said in an email to VOA.
The American celebrity visited the Zoo during her brief stay and also met with Prime Minister Imran Khan.
"We made a beeline for Islamabad Zoo, said hello to Kaavan, took a stroll through the quieter parts of the Zoo and then reveled in the big boy’s (Kaavan’s) bath time," said a message posted on the FTW website along with Cher's pictures.
Just Came From Meeting To Thank Prime Minister Imran Kahn For Making It Possible For— Cher (@cher) November 27, 2020
Me To Take Kaavan To Cambodia. Kaavan Will Be Able To Leave For Cambodia On The 29. Think Documentary Will Be Heartwarming🙏🏻.
Khan’s office quoted him as telling Cher that it was "indeed a happy moment that after giving joy and happiness to Pakistanis for years, Kaavan will now be able to retire with other elephants in a specialized sanctuary in Cambodia."
The Islamabad zoo held a formal farewell party for Kaavan earlier this week, where musicians performed in front of the elephant’s enclosure. Zookeepers say the animal loves music.
A petition was signed by 200,000 people and Four Paws came to Pakistan to assess the health status of Kaavan and submitted a report regarding the conditions not only of the elephant but all the animals living in what it denounced as the notorious zoo.
The campaign prompted a high court in Islamabad earlier this year to order the relocation of all animals at the Zoo to better living conditions.
"We are committed to performing the heaviest rescue we ever did. Kaavan will be loaded in a custom-built crate onto a heavy-duty cargo plane," according to a Four Paws statement.
Wildlife veterinarians and experts will also accompany the elephant on his journey to Cambodia, where a special enclosure has to be built for Kaavan to settle in and to get familiarized with other elephants living there.
An initial medical examination in September showed Kaavan’s nails had cracked and were overgrown due to improper care and an insufficient enclosure with flooring that damaged its feet. The elephant also developed a stereotypical behavior because of his loneliness, the cause of his shaking head back and forth for hours.
Dr. Amir Khalil of Four Paws, who has been leading the relocation mission since August, told VOA that Kaavan is fit enough to fly to Cambodia on Sunday, an eight-hour flight from Islamabad.
"A lot of medical attention is needed for the elephant during the long journey. He still is suffering from stereotype behavior and still there are huge air cracks in his nails," said the Egyptian veterinarian.
With the relocation of Kaavan, not only will Pakistan’s last Asian elephant leave the country, but the infamous zoo in Islamabad will finally close, according to Four Paws.