With music, treats and balloons, friends of Pakistan’s only Asian elephant threw a farewell party for the creature before its relocation to Cambodia following years of campaigning by animal rights activists.
The plight of Kaavan, an overweight, 35-year-old bull elephant, has drawn international condemnation and highlighted the woeful state of Islamabad’s zoo, where conditions are so bad a judge in May ordered all the animals to be moved.
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Kaavan is set to be flown to a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia on Sunday, said Saleem Shaikh, a spokesman for Pakistan’s ministry of climate change, following months of veterinary care and a special training programme to habituate the elephant to the huge metal crate he will travel in.
But before flying out, the capital’s animal lovers said goodbye, with performances from local bands who serenaded Kaavan ahead of the mammoth move.
“We want to wish him a happy retirement,” said Marion Lombard, the deputy mission leader for Four Paws International – an animal welfare group that has spearheaded the relocation effort.
The Islamabad Zoo, where Kaavan has lived for decades since arriving from Sri Lanka, was decorated with balloons for the occasion and banners wishing the animal well.
“We will miss you Kaavan,” read one of the signs.
Kaavan’s plight was given a boost over the years by American pop icon Cher, who publicly campaigned for the elephant’s relocation and called the decision to move him one of the “greatest moments” of her life.
Zoo officials have in the past denied Kaavan was kept in substandard conditions or chained, claiming instead the creature was pining for a new mate after his partner died.
But Kaavan’s behaviour – including signs of distress such as continual head-bobbing – raised concerns of mental illness.
Activists also said Kaavan was not properly sheltered from Islamabad’s searing summer temperatures, which can rise to more than 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).
Kaavan’s mate Saheli, who also arrived from Sri Lanka, died in 2012.