Pakistan’s lonely elephant Kaavan arrived in Cambodia by a cargo plane on Monday to start a new life with fellow pachyderms at a local sanctuary, the culmination of years of campaigning for his transfer by American singer Cher.
Cher was on the tarmac at the airport of Cambodia’s second-biggest city Siem Reap to greet Kaavan and was photographed in sunglasses, black facemask and white jacket meeting the vets who accompanied the elephant, who made the long journey in a custom-made crate.
Animal rescue organisation Four Paws said Kaavan had another 90-minute drive ahead and would likely arrive at the sanctuary after nightfall, so he would be released in daylight on Tuesday.
“Kaavan was eating, was not stressed, he was even a little bit sleeping, standing leaning at the crate wall. He behaves like a frequent flyer,” said Amir Khalil, a Four Paws vet.
“The flight was uneventful, which is all you can ask for when you transfer an elephant.”
Cher had written songs pressing for Kaavan’s release from grim, isolated conditions at Islamabad Zoo and she had spent the last few days with him in Pakistan.
The multi award-winning singer has been with a film crew documenting Kaavan’s story and said she was proud to be part of an effort to free an elephant she said had been shackled to a shed for 17 years.
Dozens of wildlife workers and experts led by Four Paws used a winch and rope to pull the sedated elephant into the crate before he was loaded onto the Russian-built cargo plane.
Kaavan’s handlers took more than 200kg of food including bananas and melons to keep him busy on his journey.
The plight of Kaavan — a 36-year-old bull elephant at Islamabad’s dilapidated zoo and originally from Sri Lanka — sparked global uproar from animal rights groups that launched a campaign to save him.
His cause was boosted by a spirited social media support from actress and musician Cher, who travelled to see him off from Pakistan and then to Cambodia to welcome him to his new home.
Cher was on hand at Siem Reap airport and waved excitedly at the plane after it landed around 2:30pm (0730 GMT).
“I am so proud he is here,” she said, after greeting Kaavan through an opening at the base of the crate.
“He’s going to be really happy here,” the singer said, adding that she was hopeful his ordeal was over.
Transporting an adult elephant by plane is no small task, and has only been undertaken a handful of times.
Helpers packed his trunk with food to snack on during the seven-hour flight, while a tube system was installed in his transport crate aboard a jumbo Russian cargo plane to handle up to 200 litres of urine.
After Kaavan touched down, monks offered him fruit, chanted prayers and sprinkled holy water on his crate to bless him.
He was then loaded onto a truck for the journey to Oddar Meanchey province where a wildlife sanctuary that houses other elephants will be his new home.
Cher followed behind in her own vehicle as Kaavan made his way through farmland and past the famous Angkor Wat temple.
“Cambodia is pleased to welcome Kaavan. No longer will he be `the world’s loneliest elephant’,” deputy environment minister Neth Pheaktra said.
“We expect to breed Kaavan with local elephants — this is an effort to conserve the genetic fold,” the minister said.
Animal rights groups say the animal’s behaviour in captivity demonstrated “a kind of mental illness” likely due to the zoo’s woeful conditions. In May, a Pakistani judge ordered that all the animals at the zoo be moved.
Upon hearing about Kaavan’s freedom, Cher had tweeted that the decision marked “one of the greatest moments” of her life.
A team of vets and experts from Austria-based Four Paws spent months working with Kaavan to get him ready for the trip — a complicated process due to his size and the amount of food needed en route.
The elephant also had to be taught to enter the four-tonne metal crate that was then secured in the belly of a mammoth Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane for the journey.
Four Paws, along with Islamabad authorities, also safely moved three wolves and some monkeys from the zoo. Currently only two Himalayan brown bears, one deer and one monkey remain.