The story of Goddess of Pop and the world's loneliest elephant

Cher had no intention of getting involved in the rescue of an 8,700-pound elephant from a Pakistani zoo.

However, after seeing several calls on Twitter in 2016 to "Free Kaavan," the "Goddess of Pop" quickly turned her phone to a businessman she met at a party, who she recalled had experience helping to move elephants in Africa.

“All of a sudden, I was just doing it,” Cher told Smithsonian. “I didn’t expect anything, but I was going to say to myself, ‘Yeah, you tried.’”

Cowne, on the other hand, decided to travel to Pakistan later that week, much to her surprise.

Cowne was previously interested in the reintroduction of elephants and other species to South Africa's Madikwe Game Reserve.

Cher, on the other hand, had no idea she had just signed up for a five-year assignment that would include thousands of global partners, a first-of-its-kind legal decision in Pakistan, agreements with three governments, and—to top it all off—a pandemic.

That journey is documented in a new Smithsonian Channel documentary, "Cher and the Loneliest Elephant," which will be available to watch on Paramount+ on April 22.

Kaavan is now settled into his new home, having been relocated from Pakistan to Angkor Wat in November 2020. 

According to reports, the bull elephant has a good appetite and is getting along well with three female mates.

He will soon be released from a smaller, temporary enclosure into the property's sprawling natural forest -- something he hasn't done since he was a calf.

Who is Kaavan, the world's loneliest elephant?

Kaavan was born in Sri Lanka in 1985 and was immediately given as a gift to the daughter of Pakistan's president.

The elephant eventually ended up at the Islamabad Zoo, where he shared a small enclosure with a friend named Saheli.

They were constantly restrained and were not given enough food, water, or enrichment. Saheli died of gangrene, an infection, caused by her chains in 2012, leaving Kaavan alone.

Kaavan, like many other captive elephants, suffered. He became obese and developed pathological, repetitive habits, such as incessant rocking.

“When an elephant makes those movements—their body one way, their head the other—you know they're in deep psychological despair,” Cher says.

Karavan's rage expressed itself as a provocation, and he killed two of his keepers, causing the zoo to keep him in chains indefinitely.

At any given time, about 16,000 elephants are kept in captivity, with 377 of them in the United States.

Although many are used for work and transportation in Asia, some are kept by zoos and circuses. Since elephants do not reproduce well out of the wild, many elephants in captivity, especially those used for entertainment, are abducted as calves.

This can jeopardize conservation efforts, but animal protection is the industry's biggest problem, according to Nitkin Sekar, WWF-national India's lead for elephant conservation.

Kept in captivity

According to Smithsonian, not all elephants are kept in deplorable conditions in the cage, but that does not reduce their pain in a caged life. 

Elephants love to socialize, like humans, and they have special characteristics, like love for traveling long distances, a desire to have a complex social life, besides being very intellectual. 

According to Sekar, most captive facilities are unable to meet these natural requirements, and many places deliberately expose elephants to cruelty.

How Cher came to be involved in this project?

Samar Khan, a veterinarian from the United States, visited the zoo in 2015 while visiting family in Pakistan. When she saw Kaavan, she was appalled and wanted to start a social media campaign and try to free him.

Khan took to Twitter and, where he produced a petition that received over 400,000 signatures. Cher replied after the post had already gone viral, much to Khan's surprise.

“I remember when I started to hear about it [on Twitter], because it came in sort of a flood,” Cher told Smithsonian. “It was all ‘Save Kaavan, Save Kaavan’ and ‘Free Kaavan, Free Kaavan’—it was constant.”

Following Cher and Khan's union on the same mission to save the world's loneliest elephant, the hero duo had to face a lot of difficulties in the beginning, because the Pak zoo's authorities did not want to let go of the star of their jail. 

“It was so hard in the beginning,” Cher says. “The administration didn’t even want to talk to us. They weren’t kind, they weren’t interested, they just really didn’t care.”

But things took a turn for the best when in 2016 when the zoo decided to provide Kaavan with more water and to release him from his shackles in 2016, but unfortunately, nothing else changed.

The following year, Cher released the song "Walls" to raise awareness about Kaavan and to launch the Free the Wild Foundation, a non-profit organization Cher co-founded with Cowne to support animal welfare.

Nonetheless, Kaavan would most likely have remained imprisoned if it hadn't been for the actions of Owais Awan, a Pakistani lawyer who took the zoo to court to accept the rights of nonhuman animals and to demand Kaavan's release, Smithsonian reports. 

Awan prevailed in the landmark case, establishing a precedent for animal rights in Pakistan. Surprisingly, the high court ruled that not only must Kaavan be released, but that the entire zoo be closed down, a huge victory for all of the animals there.

However, the directive was given in May 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, which added another layer of complexity to the already daunting logistical task of freeing the elephant.

Cher, Cowne, and their colleagues sought assistance from Amir Khalil, a veterinarian with Four Paws, a non-profit organization that leads animal rescue missions.

“We had a lot of difficulties in preparation,” Khalil says, “but Kaavan was a very good friend and a cooperative guy.”

United by positivity

Karavan's transportation from Pakistan to Angkor Watt was not just the struggle of a few people, but co-operation between three nations - India, Pakistan, and Cambodia. 

Kaavan was accepted into the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, a 30,000-acre forested property near Angkor Wat.

To transport the giant bull elephant over 3,200 miles to Cambodia, Khalil and his colleagues had to train Kaavan to enter a modified crate designed to withstand an elephant's brute strength, as well as placed Kaavan on a diet to meet strict weight specifications for air travel.

They have worked to strengthen Kaavan's mental health and reduce his violence.

“Dr. Amir made friends with Kaavan and got him into that cage,” Cher says. “I don’t think anyone else would have been able to do that.”

Kavan's flight from Pakistan to Angkor Wat also saw a rare happenstance: India opened up its airspace for the passage of the world's most lonely elephant, which is usually impossible given the history of rift between India and Pakistan. 

“I’m not a political person, but to have people from different countries and religions and backgrounds saying ‘Let’s do something good,’ I love that so much,” Khalil says. “Kaavan united many people worldwide with his positive message of hope and possibility.”

Although Kaavan's story had a happy ending, thousands of captive elephants are still held in cruel or insufficient conditions around the world, according to Rachel Matthews, the director of the PETA Foundation's captive animal law enforcement division, who was not involved in Kaavan's rescue.

Sluggish, but taking shape!

The resolution to problems like that with Kaavan has been sluggish, but it is finally taking shape.

Celebrities like Cher have the potential to play an important role in making an ideal world, where sanctuaries would no longer be needed because elephant captivity would have ended, PETA's  Rachel Matthews says. 

“If Cher gets a generation or two of people to reconsider supporting a circus or a zoo that has a poorly kept elephant, that’s progress,” says Sekar.

“It reduces the social and economic incentives for keeping an elephant in a miserable state just to make a quick buck.”

Travel and tourism giants also have a lot of influence when it comes to saving captive animals from the pain because they sell tickets to the public, who visit the animals, ignorant that they're only adding on their pain. 

Tripadvisor, a major international travel portal, just recently revealed that it will no longer sell tickets for elephant encounters. 

Formal bans are in place on the use of elephants in circuses in an increasing number of countries and U.S. states.

According to Smithsonian, some zoos have made positive steps to improve elephant health, while others, such as the Detroit Zoo, have gone so far as to close their elephant exhibits and relocate their animals to reputable sanctuaries.

“It’s a beginning because I see now that it is possible,” pop star Cher says about the work she was able to achieve with the platform and influence. “If I can do something, I will just do it,” she told the Smithsonian. 

Cher and the Loneliest Elephant” will premiere on Paramount+ on Thursday, April 22, and on Smithsonian Channel in the United States and Canada on May 19.

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