Kaavan, an elephant  Pakistan
Kaavan, transported to a sanctuary in Cambodia, is seen during a farewell ceremony at the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan November 23, 2020 Image Credit: Reuters

It is counter-intuitive to think that in these politics-intensive, economy-centred, corona-grappling times elephants will find traction in national news and fetch international focus. And yet it is true. One misbehaving, overweight zoo performer, Kaavan, has admirably vied with more gigantic issues in the headlines and has left the country with the kind of a media bang many entertainment industry stars could easily die and kill for.

He was saluted by the country’s president, sang to by the local bands, feted and looked after under bright media lights and written about by practically every newspaper in the country, and many foreign publications too, in a phase of indulgent showering of praise and accolades that even more accomplished humans don’t get to experience in a lifetime. Cher, the world-famous singer, flew in to meet prime minister Imran Khan thanking him for facilitating the elephant’s departure from the capital’s zoo. The next day it was a front-page picture — all because of an elephant.

But then not quite. It was actually the tragedy of his life that got him many months of fame and eventually also release from sordid conditions to a habitat abroad where he is expected to become, in the words of an expert, an elephant again. He wasn’t always an angry and pugnacious male. Brought to Pakistan by the country’s erstwhile president General Ziaul Haq, the animal’s fortunes ebbed and flowed even as he entertained thousands through a trainer enforced command performances that often involved heavy-handed tactics.

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He lost his companion and was left to fend for himself in a lonesome small square of land. His plight caught Cher’s attention and thus began a four-year long complex saga of legal challenges, administrative maneuvers and much lobbying for and against sending him abroad. It was a few animal rights activists constant campaigning that brought a happy culmination to the saddening circumstances he had fallen into.

While his send-off was warm and highbrow, his stay in the country and the final departure highlighted the downside of management issues involving animal rights. It was quite ironic to see the song and dance around his last few weeks in Pakistan since the controversy surrounding his ill-treatment. There is every possibility that if it weren’t for international celebrity intervention in its case, the elephant would have been a total non-news, left to rot in loathsome conditions, dying a painful and yet quiet, unsung death.

Poor track record of animal rights

A few months ago, a pair of lions suffocated to death as they were being transported from the same zoo to Lahore, a few hundred miles away. It is no wonder that the courts in Pakistan are not keen to let more of such species to be allowed into the country. At present the Supreme Court of Pakistan is hearing a case filed by a firm whose attempt to import two elephants from Zimbabwe. According to a media report, the petitioner runs a registered firm “possessing sufficient experience of transportation and import of different animals for different zoos across the country ….

The firm had applied and participated in a bidding process for the import of deer, barking deer, double hump camels, zebra, tiger and elephants for the Peshawar Zoo,” but government hurdles and lower court interventions thwarted the plan and now the highest court of the land will be adjudicating the matter. That’s a lot of precious hours of lordships being spent on animal rights issues that ought to have been addressed at the local level but the absence of concern, empathy and focus on the subject has now got the judicial system fully involved in such matters.

Of late there have been some fantastic civil society initiatives on animal rights related concerns and one such worthy pursuit has become a global attention-grabber. A small-scale Animal Rescue organisation, ACF, run by a passionate young woman has got the likes of award winning author Fatima Bhutto and James Bond OO7 girl Maryam D’Abo to raise funds for her attempts to retrieve abandoned animals from the streets and provide them with medical treatment and a place to dwell.

The Facebook page of the organisation notes with mixed emotions of worry and delight the state of animal affairs in Pakistan: “The demand for our work is increasing rapidly as awareness about what we do is spreading more which is a positive thing, however, it is unbelievably tough to sustain and keep expanding such a large operation in a country where animals are still not recognised as living beings with their own rights.”

So far ACF has brought home thousands of dogs, cats, donkeys and even buffaloes, protecting them from the tyranny of an uncaring society. Enthused by this sterling example other groups are popping up in different cities advancing a cause that a few years ago wasn’t in any reckoning at any level.

The Kaavan case is likely to spur the efforts of such organisations but official apathy and neglect is unlikely to go away. Kaavan’s misery should have been a cause of concern and soul searching for the system but instead it has been turned into a gala of frills and festivities.

There has been some soulful mourning as well like that of a journalist who once rode the elephant as a child and tweeted wistfully how he was feeling sad at this departure. But if Kavaan could speak most probably he would not share such sadness, and from trunk to tail, be thrilled to bits to return to his real life and habitat.

— Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. Twitter: @TalatHussain12