For more than 35 years all Kaavan the elephant had known were chains and ‘mental torment’.
Eight years ago the bull elephant, who has spent his life at the Maraghazar Zoo in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, was left totally alone when his companion, Saheli, died. The two elephants had shared an enclosure since 1990, but in 2012 Kaavan was left all alone.
After it emerged Kaavan was reportedly tied up at all times, hundreds of thousands of people signed a petition for him to be given a new home. One where he would be better cared for. Four years ago, zoo bosses insisted Kaavan was no longer chained but his long-awaited new mate never arrived and the elephant was forced to spend all his time alone.
They claimed he had only been chained when he suffered violent outbursts but there were also disturbing reports that Kaavan had been beaten to try to control his temper. To make matters worse, Kaavan was confined to a pen just 90m by 140m with little shelter, which meant he had no respite from the baking sun. Temperatures can reach a stifling 40C in Islamabad and there was no shade for the lonely elephant.
Spending so long alone and with nothing to occupy him is believed to have had a devastating impact on Kaavan. In the years after his mate died he showed increasing signs of mental distress and depression.
Safwan Shahab Ahmad, the vice chairman of Pakistan Wildlife Foundation who has studied the elephant since the 1990s. He said behaviour like head bobbing demonstrated “a kind of mental illness”. The elephant was regularly said to be seen swaying and bobbing his head in his enclosure.
“Give Kaavan deep bushes and artificial showering and you will see him enjoying the environment.”
Other experts feared that if Kaavan’s living situation did not change it would dramatically “shorten his life span”.
Zookeeper Jalal-ud-din Ahmad added:
“Bring a female elephant and you will see very positive changes in Kaavan”. But for eight, long years, Kaavan only had his keepers for company and not one of his own kind.
Heartbreakingly, even his keeper, Mohammad Jalal, said: “I have hardly seen him happy.”
Last year, both local and international animal rights groups launched a bid to have the elephant re-homed in a suitable sanctuary after his years of suffering. Finally, in May this year the Islamabad High Court ordered wildlife officials to launch a consultation with Sri Lanka. Where the elephant came from, to find him a “suitable sanctuary”.
Now, Kaavan has finally been allowed a chance at a new life after he was moved to the Lek’s sanctuary in Cambodia. Where conditions are expected to be more suited to him and where he will have other elephants for company. Government minister Malik Amin Aslam said authorities would “free this elephant with a kind heart, and will ensure that he lives a happy life.”
“This is a sad step to take, but the correct one for Kaavan.”
The elephant is not the only animal to find a new home following the court ruling. Maraghazar Zoo is said to be improving its standards and the conditions the animals live in. This mean lions, birds and brown bears all needed new homes while the work was carried out.