‘World’s Loneliest Elephant’ Lands Safely in Cambodia After Complex Rescue

November 30, 2020 Off By Joe Freeman

After a sendoff from Pakistan’s president, a military escort, and 10 hours inside an airplane crate filled with 200 kilos of fruit, the animal dubbed the “world’s loneliest elephant” landed safely in Cambodia on Monday, where he will live out his days in a wildlife sanctuary.

A Russian Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane carrying the nearly five-ton celebrity elephant Kaavan touched down in the Southeast Asian country around 2pm after a layover in New Delhi, where he was the subject of a minor diplomatic flare-up between Pakistan and India, which required a security check.

A senior government advisor in Pakistan accused India of playing “hateful politics” by not allowing a direct flight to Cambodia.

But after obstacles both geopolitical and logistical, including an armed escort to the airport in Islamabad, the stopover in New Delhi, and checks for COVID-19 symptoms, Kaavan made it to the temple town of Siem Reap in Cambodia. He will be transported overland to the actual sanctuary in a nearby province, marking the end of 35 years spent in the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad after being sent there as a calf from Sri Lanka in 1985. 

The animal welfare group Four Paws was selected to carry out the mission, given its experience in other challenging locations from Sudan to Syria.

“He was calm during the entire flight, it was very uneventful, which is all you can ask for when you transfer an elephant,” Dr Amir Khalil, the mission’s lead veterinarian, told VICE World News.

Living in substandard conditions at the zoo in Pakistan, Kaavan became aggressive and overweight, suffering aggravated by the death eight years ago of his sole companion, another Asian elephant named Saheli. But a 2016 article in the Los Angeles Times put him at the center of a global media campaign that attracted the attention of the singer Cher, who hired lawyers in a legal battle that ended this year

In May, Islamabad’s High Court decided Kaavan and other animals at the zoo must be released or sent to a location with better conditions. Since Kaavan was one of the last of his kind in Pakistan, a transfer to the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, where other Asian elephant companions await, was approved. Cher travelled to Pakistan a few days before the flight, where she met with Prime Minister Imran Khan, and also was on hand to greet the elephant on the tarmac in Cambodia.

Kaavan, elephant, Cher
US pop singer Cher (L) holds a flower as she waits with Cambodia's Deputy Minister of Environment Neth Pheaktra (R) to greet the Asian elephant Kaavan upon his arrival in Cambodia from Pakistan at Siem Reap International Airport in Siem Reap on Nov. 30, 2020. Photo: TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP

But the journey, which got underway on Sunday, was not simple. Elephants are rarely transported by plane as adults because of their weight. Kaavan, who showed signs of psychological distress after decades of captivity, needed months of training to get used to being in the crate, where he needed to remain alert and balanced. On the plane there was a special tube able to collect around 200 litres of elephant urine if nature called.

Kaavan the elephant
Workers help pull Kaavan into his crate. Photo: Hristo Vladev, courtesy of Four Paws

Ahead of the trip, Kaavan’s life story was covered in local and international media, and he was treated to a hero’s sendoff in Pakistan, where President Arif Alvi came to the Marghazar zoo for an official farewell. But the elephant did not enjoy all the attention, and could be seen in a video sneaking up on a journalist and spraying him with water.