How did the ‘World’s Loneliest Elephant’ move from Pakistan to Cambodia?

An elephant pictured in a zoo in Islamabad - where Kaavan was living until recently. Photo: Mfawadazhar, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The ‘World’s Loneliest Elephant’, Kaavan has left Pakistan for the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary after years of campaigning by animal rights groups for his relocation.

By Umair Jamal

On November 29, the “world’s loneliest elephant,” Kaavan, was loaded onto an airplane in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, and flown to Cambodia.

Kaavan lived in Pakistan alone for eight years after his partner died in 2012.

The Islamabad zoo where Kaavan lived for more than three decades has been termed a dangerous place for animals by veterinarians.

His relocation from Pakistan is the result of years of campaigning, led by a US pop singer Cher. “Just came from meeting to thank Prime Minister Imran Khan for making it possible for me to take Kaavan to Cambodia,” Cher tweeted.

Kaavan will now spend his life with other elephants at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary in the country’s northwest.

Kaavan’s life in Pakistan

According to the animal welfare organization Four Paws, Kaavan lived in a Pakistani Zoo for almost 35 years without proper care or socialization. Kaavan’s only companion in Pakistan was his partner who died in 2012. Reportedly, Kaavan was one year old when he was gifted to Pakistan by Sri Lanka.

After his companion’s death in 2012, Kaavan was said to be listless and suffered from many physical and mental disorders. The zoo that housed Kaavan has repeatedly come under media scrutiny for its poor conditions and lack of proper infrastructure, including handlers, needed for the animals’ care.

Earlier this year, two lions died in the same zoo due to poor ventilation after a fire broke out in their enclosure. Over the last few years, dozens of animals have gone missing from the zoo and many have died due to poor conditions. To address the woeful state of the zoo, the Islamabad High Court (IHC) issued an order in May that all the animals there were to be relocated.

In August, a team of vets and experts from Four Paws arrived in Pakistan to examine Kaavan on the government’s request. The team noted their disappointment over the poor environment of the zoo.

“Conditions were really bad when we came in 2016. We feel sick to see that the conditions are worse now,” said Four Paws’ Dr. Amir Khalil. “Back then we handed a mandatory and obligatory report to the responsible authorities, the mayor of Islamabad and the wildlife department, especially regarding Kaavan and other animals at the zoo. We had recommended important changes in the facility. Our recommendations have not been implemented.”

Yavor Gechev, another representative of Four Paws, noted that “Our first impression of Kaavan was that it is aggressive. But it is actually depressed and disturbed mainly from boredom, from lack of enrichment of its enclosure, boredom from lack of contact with the same species, even lack of contact with humans.” 

Campaign to get Kaavan relocated from Pakistan

Over the years, Kaavan’s story has gathered plenty of attention in Pakistan and internationally. Four years ago, Kaavan found an unexpected ally in Cher, an American singer and animal rights activist. She has co-founded an organization called Free the Wild, which aims to stop the suffering of wild animals languishing in captivity globally. She has campaigned vehemently together with Four Paws to secure Kaavan’s relocation from Pakistan.

Last week, she arrived in Pakistan to see Kaavan before his flight to Cambodia.

“Appreciating her efforts in retiring Kaavan to an elephant sanctuary, Pakistan’s Prime Minister thanked Cher for her campaign and role in this regard,” a statement from Imran Khan’s office read.

Kaavan was trained for weeks by staff from Four Paws before his departure. “Transferring an adult elephant on a plane is something very, very rare,” said Four Paws spokesperson Martin Bauer. “An elephant transfer by plane on this scale I think has never happened before, so we are writing history here,” he told NPR.

Kaavan was loaded into a specially built crate on a cargo plane, where a staff of veterinarians accompanied him for the 10 hour flight from Pakistan to Cambodia.

Elephants in Cambodia. Photo: Pikist

Kaavan’s life in Cambodia

Kaavan has begun his new life in a Cambodian wildlife sanctuary, where he will have the company of three female elephants. It’s “the best hope for him,” Bauer said. “The goal is to socialize him. It will take a while because he has lived on his own for such a long time. But yes, ultimately the goal is to bring him together with other animals because that’s what elephants want. They’re herd animals, they always form families, and that’s also what we plan for him.”

Cher, who traveled to Cambodia to see Kaavan’s new home, said “You know this is amazing for him… his life is going to be the life of an elephant and not the life of a prisoner.

“It’s just a lovely place and the people are very kind. I would love in some years to come back and see him,” added Cher.

Kaavan’s life story will be the subject of a documentary made by the Smithsonian Channel in 2021.

Before leaving Pakistan, Kaavan was the country’s only Asian elephant. After his departure from Pakistan, Islamabad Zoo—his home for more than three decades—is preparing to close. In the meantime, Four Paws is planning to relocate more animals from the zoo.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15