Pakistan to free elephant Kaavan after campaign by US singer Cher

US music icon expresses delight as court orders transfer of Asian elephant to a suitable sanctuary from Islamabad Zoo.

Elephant Kaavan stands under the cover of his shed behind a fence at the Islamabad Zoo [File: Aamir Qureshi/AFP]

Music icon and animal rights activist Cher shared her delight after a Pakistani court ordered freedom for a lonely elephant, who had become the subject of a high-profile rights campaign backed by the United States singer.

“We have just heard from Pakistan High Court Kaavan is free,” the singer and animal rights campaigner said on Twitter on Thursday in capital letters, adding a string of emojis and saying she felt “sick”.

“This is one of the greatest moments of my life,” she said.

Outrage over the treatment of Kaavan at the capital’s Islamabad Zoo went global several years ago with a petition garnering more than 200,000 signatures after it emerged he was being chained up.

The Islamabad High Court ordered wildlife officials to consult with Sri Lanka, where the Asian elephant came from, to find him a “suitable sanctuary” within 30 days.

“The pain and suffering of Kaavan must come to an end by relocating him to an appropriate elephant sanctuary, in or outside the country,” the court ordered, criticising the zoo for failing to meet the animal’s needs for the past three decades.

The court has also ordered dozens of other animals – including brown bears, lions and birds – to be relocated temporarily while the zoo improves its standards.

Awais Awan, Kavaan’s lawyer, said his case was different “because Pakistan is the only country where there are no Asian elephants”. 

“Any option would be better than the existing option,” he told Al Jazeera on Friday. “Experts and the government should determine what’s best for him.” 

Zoo officials have in the past denied that Kaavan was chained up and said he was just in need of a new mate after his partner died in 2012.

‘Bold step’

Activists said he had insufficient shelter from Islamabad’s searing summer temperatures, which can rise to above 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit).

Asian elephants can roam thousands of kilometres through deep tropical and subtropical forests, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

In contrast, Kaavan’s 90 by 140-metre (100 by 150-yard) pen had almost no foliage, and only limited shade was provided.

Cher has for years spoken out about the plight of the elephant [AFP]

Mark Cowne, CEO of Free The Wild, a charity he runs with Cher, welcome the news of his release.

“It’s so exciting. It’s remarkable … I’m so happy for Kavaan,” he told Al Jazeera. 

“We were concerned about his mental health, he was in a very bad condition. We really wanted to help him. He had been through a terrible time, locked up for 26 years, chained up for all that time.”

The Nonhuman Rights Project, a US animal rights group, which has been campaigning for Kaavan, applauded the “bold step”.

Arriving as a one-year-old in 1985 from Sri Lanka, Kaavan was temporarily held in chains in 2002 because zookeepers were concerned about increasingly violent tendencies, but he was freed later that year after an outcry.

His mate Saheli, who arrived also from Sri Lanka in 1990, died in 2012, and in 2015 it emerged that Kaavan was regularly being chained once more – for several hours a day.

Many people signed a petition sent to zoo authorities and Pakistan’s then-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in protest.

A second petition circulated in 2016 and was backed by more than 200,000 animal lovers from across the globe, demanding Kaavan’s release to a sanctuary.

Cher, who for years has spoken out about his plight, tweeted her thanks to the Pakistani government, adding: “It’s so emotional for us that I have to sit down.”

Additional reporting by Alia Chughtai in Karachi, Pakistan 

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies