Dr. Amir Khalil, Kaavan elephant Pakistan
Dr. Amir Khalil, a veterinarian with the animal rescue charity Four Paws International, with the elephant Kaavan at the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan, on September 18, 2020. Image Credit: Four Paws

Islamabad: Kaavan, Pakistan’s last Asian elephant and the world’s loneliest elephant, is all set to start a new life in Cambodia. Kaavan’s relocation from Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad to the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary is planned for the end of November. The transfer is a “happy moment” for both the animals and animal-lovers as it would result in closure of the infamous Islamabad zoo. In early September, Austria-based animal welfare organization Four Paws International declared Kaavan fit to travel after medically examining him.

Four Paws International and animal welfare charity Free The Wild (FTW) which has been fighting for the elephant’s rights since 2016, will be covering the cost of the transportation. FTW is also raising $50,000 funds to build Kaavan’s enclosure in Cambodia. “It fills me with incredible joy to see that Kaavan’s suffering is finally coming to an end. I cannot wait to bring him to Cambodia” said American superstar and co-founder of Free The Wild, Cher. “Free Kaavan will soon no longer be just a hashtag, but reality,” she said.

Preparing Kaavan for travel

Four Paws team is currently busy preparing for the elephant’s safe departure. It will essentially require arranging a suitable aircraft and building a transport crate for Kaavan, who weighs over five tonnes and is more than three metres high. Later, an elephant expert will train Kaavan for a few weeks to securely enter the crate. The rescue team has decided not to sedate the elephant during the travel due to safety reasons but “a team of wildlife veterinarians will accompany Kaavan” to Cambodia. “For at least 4-5 weeks, Kaavan would be trained to move into the crate, relax, drink and eat inside to feel as comfortable as possible,” Dr Amir Khalil, Four Paws veterinarian and team leader, told Gulf News. Once the animal gets familiar with it, the crate is closed, secured and transferred.

Human-animal bond

Kaavan, who has been kept in Islamabad Zoo for 35 years mostly in poor conditions, often chained and neglected by the zookeepers, is slowly learning to trust humans again. “In the past weeks I have spent almost every day with Kaavan, talking and singing Frank Sinatra songs to him. This may seem absurd to outsiders, but it allowed me to build a close relationship with the elephant” shared Dr Amir Khalil. “As his personal physician, I will not leave Kaavan’s side during his entire journey,” says Dr Amir who has been appointed amicus curiae (friend of the court) by the Islamabad High Court and is looking after the logistical organization and execution of relocation.

Relocation of zoo animals

The Four Paws team arrived in Islamabad in the first week of September to prepare over 30 animals for departure. The team is also supporting the relocation of two Himalayan brown bears and offered to relocate them to one of their sanctuaries in Europe or Jordan. One of the bears, 17-year-old Suzie, suffered from a severely infected wound after a tumour was surgically removed, the team said. Together with the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board (IWMB), Four Paws has safely relocated three wolves, several monkeys, and all the rabbits, within Pakistan. The only remaining animals at the zoo apart from elephant Kaavan are two bears, one deer and five monkeys.

Islamabad zoo being shut

The 28-hectare Marghazar Zoo was originally opened in 1978 as a wildlife sanctuary but was later converted into a zoo. Forty years later, all the animals are being retired following the court decision to shut the zoo over its poor conditions. Four Paws was invited for the safe relocation of animals by IWMB after two lions died in transfer tragedy in a “shocking” manner in which animal handlers set a fire in their enclosure to force them out.