After years of public outcry and campaigning by the US singer and actor Cher, the “world’s loneliest elephant” embarked on Sunday on a mammoth move from Pakistan to retirement in a Cambodian sanctuary.
Cher has spent recent days at the Islamabad zoo to provide moral support to Kaavan – an overweight 36-year-old bull elephant – whose pitiful treatment at the dilapidated facility sparked an uproar from animal rights groups and a spirited social media campaign.
“My wishes have finally come true”, Cher said in a statement thanking her charity, Free The Wild.
“We have been counting down to this moment and dreaming of it for so long and to finally see Kaavan transported out of [the Islamabad] zoo will remain with us forever.”
Kaavan’s case and the woeful conditions at the zoo resulted in a judge this year ordering all the animals to be moved.
“Thanks to Cher and also to local Pakistani activists, Kaavan’s fate made headlines around the globe and this contributed to the facilitation of his transfer,” said Martin Bauer, a spokesman for Four Paws International, an animal welfare group that spearheaded the relocation effort.
Experts spent hours coaxing a slightly sedated Kaavan into a specially constructed metal crate, at one point using ropes to help pull him in. This was hoisted on to a lorry and taken to Islamabad airport.
From there, Kaavan was to be sent via a Russian transport jumbo jet to Siem Reap in north-west Cambodia.
Cher, 74, spent several days in the Pakistani capital to visit Kaavan before the trip to a 10,000-hectare (25,000-acre) Cambodian wildlife sanctuary, with the Pakistani prime minister, Imran Khan, personally thanking her.
She was due to fly to Cambodia on Sunday to be in the South-east Asian nation when the elephant arrives.
Officials said Kaavan would initially be kept in a small designated section of the park where he could see other elephants.
“Sending him to a place where he can be with other elephants of his kind … is really the right choice,” the Pakistani climate change minister, Malik Amin Aslam, told AFP.
“We will be happy to see him happy in Cambodia and we hope he finds a partner very soon.”
Dubbed by the press as the world’s loneliest elephant, Kaavan was the only Asian elephant in Pakistan.
A team of vets and experts from Four Paws spent months working with Kaavan to get him ready for the trip to Cambodia, which included training the elephant to enter the massive metal transport crate that would be placed in a cargo plane for the seven-hour flight.
Zoo officials have in the past denied that Kaavan was kept in substandard conditions or chained, claiming instead the creature was pining for a new mate after his partner died.
But Kaavan’s behaviour – including signs of distress such as continual head-bobbing – raised concerns for his mental wellbeing.
Activists also said Kaavan was not properly sheltered from Islamabad’s searing summer temperatures.
Kaavan’s mate, Saheli, who also arrived from Sri Lanka, died in 2012.
Rights groups and conservationists have said that the abysmal conditions at the Islamabad zoo resulted in part from the lack of legislation in Pakistan aimed at protecting animal welfare.
“There’s a lot of improvement to be made,” said Rab Nawaz from the World Wildlife Federation in Pakistan.
“Kaavan is just one animal. There’s lots of animals in Pakistan … which are in miserable conditions.”