‘World’s loneliest elephant’ arrives safely in Cambodia

Sopheng Cheang

PHNOM PENH (AP) — The pachyderm dubbed the “world’s loneliest elephant” after languishing alone for years in a Pakistani zoo was greeted on his arrival in Cambodia on Monday by chanting monks and was then sent on his way to a wildlife sanctuary.

Like other travellers during these times, Kaavan needed to be tested for COVID-19 before his flight. Once his large metal crate was safely on board, Kaavan was provided with in-flight snacks — 200 kilogrammes of them — for the seven-hour journey.

Kaavan was not stressed during the flight, eating his food and even getting a little bit of sleep standing in his crate, said veterinarian Amir Khalil who accompanied him on the flight and works with Four Paws, the Vienna-headquartered animal rescue group that organised the move.

“He behaves like a frequent flier. The flight was uneventful, which is all you can ask for when you transfer an elephant,” Khalil said.

The 36-year-old, 4,080 kilogramme elephant received a warm welcome on arrival in Cambodia from officials, conservationists and monks, who chanted prayers for him.

Kaavan, a 1985 gift from Sri Lanka to Pakistan, had been living in the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad with his partner Saheli, who died in 2012. The zoo fell on hard times and conditions got so bad that a court in the Pakistani capital ordered the zoo closed in August.

The plight of the male Asian elephant has captured worldwide attention, including from the American singer and actor Cher, who has been closely involved in his rescue and was in Cambodia for Kaavan’s arrival.

Environment Ministry spokesman Neth Pheaktra welcomes the arrival the crate containing Kaavan, the Asian elephant, in Siem Reap International Airport. PHOTO: AP

Cher’s animal welfare group Free the Wild has worked with Four Paws and the American syndicated columnist and philanthropist, Eric Margolis, to relocate Kaavan — a mission that’s cost about USD400,000.

According to Four Paws, very few adult elephants have ever been relocated by plane, so preparations were arduous.

Veterinarians and elephant experts working for Four Paws spent three months in Islamabad, coaching Kaavan three times a day on how to enter and exit safely and without stress his four-tonne travel crate, which includes a system that can hold up to 200 litres of urine.

He was also dangerously overweight due to his unsuitable diet of around 250 kilogrammes of sugar cane each day. With Khalil’s help, Kaavan lost 450 kilogrammes over the past three months.

Kaavan’s wounds are emotional as well as physical. He would spend his days throwing his head from side to side, a stereotypical sign of boredom and misery in an elephant, said Four Paws spokesman Martin Bauer.

The loss of his mate Saheli took a toll on Kaavan’s mental health. Elephants are social animals that thrive on the company of other elephants, Bauer explained. For Kaavan, the last eight years have been akin to living in quarantine — something the world has come to understand all too well amid the coronavirus pandemic, he said.

Late Monday, Kaaven was being driven by truck to a camp in northern Cambodia.

“Once Kaavan feels at home in a controlled setting, he will be released in a wildlife sanctuary, in Oddar Meanchey province, in the northern section of Cambodia, where some 600 Asian elephants live in peace and tranquillity,” said a statement from spokesman for the Environment Ministry Neth Pheaktra. “Pachyderms can live for many years and even at 36, we hope that he will contribute to the gene pool.”