By Sonya Rehman
From a change.org petition that garnered thousands of signatures, to immense pressure from animal lovers and animal rights activists both at home and abroad, Kaavan, the 29-year-old maltreated elephant in Maraghazar Zoo, in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, was recently unchained after 27 years in confinement.
Gifted by Sri Lanka to Pakistan in the 80s, Kaavan’s only companion, Saheli, was only 22-years-old when she died in 2012 due to gross neglect and lack of proper veterinary care.
Cramped within a small enclosure, with just a dilapidated shed for refuge from the scorching summer heat, Kaavan’s heartbreaking story spread like wild fire after images and videos of his plight did the rounds across numerous social media platforms.
This month, Cher’s representative, Mark Cowne, arrived in Islamabad to follow-up on Kaavan. Tweeting out a photo of Cowne feeding the elephant, the singer was positively ecstatic:
“My wife and I have a history of working with wildlife in Africa,” Cowne stated via telephone, “We’ve known Cher for a long time; she’s as passionate about helping animals mistreated in captivity as we are.”
Having contacted Cowne a few weeks ago to alert him about Kaavan’s case, Cowne caught a flight to Pakistan and spent two days in Islamabad, this month. While there, he met with the zoo’s administration and found that it wasn’t just Kaavan who was suffering, but the other animals were also living in deplorable conditions. “It was bad,” Cowne stated, “But perhaps not as bad as it was six months ago. However, after 27 years in chains, Kaavan is severely mentally damaged.”
Cowne also mentioned that the officials he spoke with said that they were hoping to find Kaavan a mate. “He doesn’t need a mate,” Cowne stated exasperatedly, “Kaavan needs a new, bigger enclosure. The Capital Development Authority (CDA) does not accept any responsibility, they have a small number of people visiting the zoo and given that the zoo officials say they have no money and deal with budget constraints, the zoo ought to be closed down.”
Hell-bent on returning to Pakistan again, Cowne said that Kaavan’s tragic story has shone the spotlight on the devastating problems that zoos across the world are creating for animals in captivity.
“There are millions of people backing us,” Cowne said, who mentions that he’s currently in the midst of working on an international campaign with Cher that they hope to launch soon.
For Cowne, spending time with Kaavan in the elephant’s enclosure was a “spiritual” experience. “I felt great empathy for him; it’s terrible the way he had to suffer for so long.”
For this particular story of animal neglect and abuse, perhaps the main tragedy lies in the fact that it took consistent international pressure to finally make both the Pakistani government and the zoo administration to sit up and take notice of the misery, spanning over two decades, endured by an innocent creature. And while Kaavan’s shackles have been removed, the damage, sadly, has been done.