A real life fairy tale: Cambodia provides sanctuary to Kaavan, the world’s loneliest elephant (video & gallery) *updated

Online English lessons Phnom Penh Tutors 1

Sometime later this morning (Nov 30) a chartered Russian Ilyushin Il-76TD airplane will touchdown at Siem Reap, Cambodia. Onboard will be a team of celebrities, including American singer, actress, and television personality Cher, and a 35-year-old, 5.5 tonne bull elephant named Kaavan.

Some of the Friends of Islamabad Zoo who have made Kaavan's flight to Cambodia possible
Some of the Friends of Islamabad Zoo who have made Kaavan’s flight to Cambodia possible Friends of Islamabad Zoo

With the potential to become the country’s next big domestic tourist attraction, if handled correctly, the relocation of Kaavan from a dry and barren enclosure at the impoverished Marghazar (Islamabad) Zoo to the lush tropical environment of Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary in northwestern Cambodia is much like a fairy tale come true.

Born in Sri Lanka, Kaavan was gifted by the Sri Lankan government to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan when he was just one-year-old. A female partner, purchased in 1990 from Bangladesh died in 2012, leaving Kaavan alone and without proper care or socialisation since.

The years of isolation and living in an inhospitable environment will soon be behind him. At around 5am Cambodia time Kaavan the elephant was finally loaded on board the heavy-lift aircraft that will fly him to his new life.

Kaavan’s rescue due to Pakistan Twitter users

Kaavan’s plight first gained global attention in 2016, when Cher launched a social media campaign to find a better living situation for him.

Cher in Islamabad to supervise Kaavan's journey to Cambodia with Four Paws Veterinarian Dr Amir Khalil (R)
Cher in Islamabad to supervise Kaavan’s journey to Cambodia with Four Paws Veterinarian Dr Amir Khalil (R) and Friends of Islamabad Zoo

According to a media statement issued by ViacomCBS on behalf of Smithsonian Channel, who are documenting Kaavan’s journey, Cher said she first “found out about Kaavan from the people on my twitter.

“They would not stop saying ‘Cher, you have to do something, you have to fix this, you have to save him.’ I thought how can I fix this? How can I save an elephant who’s been shackled to a shed for 17 years and who is a thousand miles away?

Teaming up with UK businessman Mark Cowne and South African entrepreneur Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne, Cher co-founded Free The Wild, a wildlife welfare charity that works towards improving the quality of life for wild animals in captivity and, where possible, rehabilitating and releasing them back into their natural habitats. Kaavan’s welfare and rehabilitation have been a primary focus of the group, with his relocation to Cambodia its first “big rescue”.

Kaavan and Four Paws Veterinarian Dr Amir Khalil watch his shipping crate to Cambodia arrive
Kaavan and Four Paws Veterinarian Dr Amir Khalil watch his shipping crate to Cambodia arrive Friends of Islamabad Zoo

Speaking at the final farewell ceremony at Marghazar Zoo earlier today, Malik Amin Aslam Khan, advisor to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan on climate change and global vice president of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), acknowledged the poor conditions under which Kaavan has been kept.

While Kaavan brought joy to millions of Pakistanis, we didn’t give him the same in return, he reportedly said, adding it was time to retire him to his new home.

Rather the dry, almost treeless compound Kaavan has endured alone for the past eight years, at his new home in Cambodia Kaavan will have some 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of protected lush, tropical jungle to explore and, more importantly, other elephants to interact with.

Preparations for transporting Kaavan began on Sunday and were finally completed at about 5am this morning. The flight from Islamabad to Siem Reap is expected to take some six hours to complete, putting Kaavan trunk down in Cambodia around midday or early afternoon.

Documented by Smithsonian Channel

The remarkable story of the four-year battle by Cher, Friends of Islamabad Zoo, Four Paws, Free the Wild, and a host of other people to free Kaavan from his miserable surroundings and find him a new home is being documented by Nutshell TV Ltd. and Two Wise Monkeys Entertainment for Smithsonian Channel. A documentary with the working title Cher’s Elephant Airlift is slated as a special presentation in 2021.

Kaavan enjoys a restful sleep on the night before his journey to Cambodia
Kaavan enjoys a restful sleep on the night before his journey to Cambodia @iwmb.org.pk/ Friends of Islamabad Zoo

Despite the international celebrity status Kaavan has attained, and which Cher has maintained throughout her long and distinguished career, the office of Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the Embassy of Pakistan in Cambodia, have remained mute over the pending arrival.

Neither have responded to multiple requests as to what arrangements were being made to welcome Kaavan and his entourage of vets, and carers, particularly in light of Cambodia’s new strict quarantine requirements and an active COVID-19 flare-up in the capital.

On November 29 Pakistan reported 2,829 new COVID-19 cases and 43 deaths to bring the total number of cases to 395,185, the 28th highest globally, while 43 deaths saw total deaths reach 7,985, the 30th most in the world. In the USA COVID-19 is totally out of control.

Prime Minister Hun is scheduled to be in Siem Reap today to attend a groundbreaking ceremony to mark construction of 38 roads in the province as part of an infrastructure boost.

Whether the celebrity status of Kaavan and his potential to give a much needed shot in the arm to country’s severely depressed tourism industry has been realised as yet is still to be seen.

However, it is hard to imagine the opportunity of a selfie with an international entertainment industry legend, a rescued, mistreated, elephant, an appearance in the documentary, and the opportunity to again remind the world “Cambodia is a small country, but has a big heart” will be passed up.



Update: This story has been updated to reflect the latest travel information.



You can follow #Kaavan’s journey to Cambodia on Twitter here SmithsonianChan

You can also follow Kaavan in the air here Flightrader24



Feature photo & video Smithsonian Channel



Kaavan, the world’s loneliest elephant’s journey to Cambodia slide gallery



Gallery photos Friends of Islamabad Zoo





The following two tabs change content below.

John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and editor.

He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.

He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.

In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.

Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.

In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

If you enjoyed reading, please share using these options below.

Make a comment

Your email address will not be published.