World’s ‘Loneliest Elephant’ Chained for 35 Years Is Finally Moving to a New Home

August 21, 2020 Updated: August 21, 2020

A captive Asian elephant named Kaavan became the subject of a years-long high-profile animal rights campaign after his lonely life in chains was exposed.

Finally, Kaavan’s champions are celebrating, as the 35-year-old elephant is scheduled to move from Maraghazar Zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan, to a 25,000-acre animal sanctuary in Cambodia.

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Kaavan pictured at Islamabad’s zoo in Pakistan on June 30, 2016. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

Kaavan was born in Sri Lanka in 1985 and arrived in Pakistan at age 1. At the zoo, Kaavan was routinely chained by the legs in his 90-by-140-meter (approx. 100-by-150-yard) pen and was diagnosed with a kind of “mental illness” due to protracted social isolation.

The activists following Kaavan’s story have long suspected that the elephant was being mistreated by his caretakers. The petition started to rescue Kaavan states that after Kaavan’s companion elephant, Saheli (which means a female friend in Hindi), died in 2012 due to gangrene and neglect, Kaavan was left entirely on his own. Elephants are by nature social animals; the pair had happily shared an enclosure since 1990.

Hundreds of thousands of activists petitioned for Kaavan’s relocation and better life. However, The Express Tribune Pakistan reported in 2016 that the Islamabad zoo officials claimed that Kaavan was not being chained except in the event of “violent tendencies.” However, chronically understimulated and with little shelter from the raging sun, Kaavan showed numerous signs of physical and psychological distress, including swaying and head-bobbing.

According to the Pakistani news outlet, Islamabad Zoo staffer Jalal-ud-din Ahmad told AFP: “Bring a female elephant and you will see very positive changes in Kaavan,” while the elephant’s own caretaker, Mohammad Jalal, had admitted that he had “hardly seen him happy.”

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Kaavan stands under the meager cover of his shed within his enclosure at the zoo on May 22, 2020. (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

In response to the animal lovers’ years-long tireless effort, a declaration from the Islamabad High Court made Kaavan’s emancipation official. On May 21, Chief Justice Athar Minallah formally condemned the conditions at Islamabad Zoo, while ordering Kaavan’s release (pdf) in an open court hearing.

The chief justice said: “There are neither adequate facilities nor resources to provide living conditions that would meet the behavioral, social, and physiological needs of the animals. Kaavan, the elephant, has been treated cruelly by subjecting him to unimaginable pain and suffering for the past three decades […] The pain and suffering of Kaavan must come to an end by relocating him to an appropriate elephant sanctuary, in or outside the country.”

Two months later, Pakistani government officials granted animal welfare group Free the Wild the authority to relocate Kaavan.

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Kaavan photographed by the media as he stands behind a fence at Islamabad Zoo, Pakistan, on July 18, 2020. (FAROOQ NAEEM/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the co-founders of Free the Wild, Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne said on the organization’s website that the decision to relocate Kaavan followed five years of “relentless effort” by the welfare group and their extended support network, Team Kaavan.

At the time of writing, Kaavan’s health is under assessment by Free the Wild’s team of veterinarians. Pending his fitness for travel, the team will then apply for a permit to move Kaavan to his new home at Lek’s Sanctuary and Elephant Nature Park in Cambodia.

Acclimatizing the 35-year-old elephant to his temporary transport crate is a process that could take up to a month, Gina said. All being well, Kaavan should be enjoying his first taste of freedom in three decades by the end of September.

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Kaavan, the 35-year-old Asian elephant, pictured taking a walk with Islamabad Zoo caretakers on June 30, 2016 (AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

“We are delighted,” Gina said. “We will keep you all informed as we progress with this landmark project.”

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