World of friends help “world’s loneliest elephant”
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan; PHNOM PENH, Cambodia––Kaavan, long billed “the world’s loneliest elephant,” was a flying elephant this morning, November 30, 2020, en route from the defunct Marghuzar Zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan, to share a 25,000-acre habitat with three female Asian elephants inside the the one-million acre Kulen-Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia.
After the seven-hour flight to Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital city, aboard a Russian transport plane, Kaavan “received a warm welcome on arrival in from officials, conservationists and the Buddhist monks who chanted prayers for his harmony and prosperity,” reported Sopheng Cheang for Associated Press.
After the ceremonies Kaavan was loaded aboard a truck for the 11-to-12-hour journey by road to the Kulen-Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary, near the Cambodian border with Thailand. But compared to everything Kaavan has already endured, the trip should be relatively easy, with––millions of observers around the world hope––a happy ending.
Kaavan struggled after loss of companion Saheli
In Cambodia, Kaavan “finally has a chance to be an elephant, to live in a place he can call home, and to share a new life with a partner,” Vier Pfoten [Four Paws International] veterinarian Amir Khalil told media of the elephant, who turned dangerous after the death of his former companion, Saheli, in 2012.
Saheli, 22, brought to the Marghuzar Zoo from Bangladesh in 1991, six years after Kaavan arrived, “developed a small infection in her foot that went unattended and became gangrenous. When she died, her lifeless body lay for several days beside the heartsick Kaavan until zookeepers eventually removed her,” recounted Kathy Gannon of Associated Press.
The American entertainer Cher and syndicated columnist and philanthropist Eric Margolis have reportedly raised $400,000 to fund the Kaavan transfer to Cambodia.
“She’s also making a documentary film about the process,” mentioned Gannon.
Cher & Kaavan
“Cher first learned of Kaavan’s plight in 2016,” reported BBC News correspondent Ilyas Khan. “The Oscar-winning actress and singer, who cofounded Free the Wild, a wildlife protection charity, hired a legal team to press for the elephant’s freedom. When the court order freeing him was announced in May 2020, the singer called it one of the ‘greatest moments’ of her life. In the months since, she has chronicled his progress on her Twitter account, where she has 3.8 million followers.”
Though Cher, 74, has rarely been upstaged as a singer since first topping the U.S. and British pop charts in 1965, only two years after first singing professionally, it was the veterinarian Khalil whose song first soothed the “savage beast” Kaavan had become in isolation.
Khalil had flown to Islamabad to prepare Kaavan to be moved to the Kulen-Promtep Wildlife Sanctuary. The job included weaning Kaavan from a daily ration of 550 pounds of sugar cane per day to a more suitable elephant diet, bringing his weight down half a ton in three months, to his present relatively svelte four and a half tons.
The “elephant singers”
But at first neither Khalil nor anyone else could approach Kaavan to do any hands-on evaluation or treatment of a variety of chronic self-inflicted injuries.
Merely watching Kaavan day after day was “really boring,” Khalil told Khan. “So I started to sing. And after some time, I noticed that the elephant started to get an interest in my voice, which no one loved anyway, so I was embarrassed. But then I was happy to have found a big fan, and I started to sing to him.”
Narrated Khan, “Soon Kaavan could be seen eating out of Khalil’s hands, hugging him with his trunk as he took a bath at the pond while his new friend sang along one of his favorite songs from the traditional pop era being played on a portable sound system.
“Not long after, this once-aggressive elephant happily followed Khalil and his colleagues into the crate which had been specially designed to carry him to Cambodia.”
Cher has more recently worked to elevate Kaavan’s musical appreciation, and flew to Pakistan to accompany Kaavan, Khalil, and the Vier Pfoten relocation team to Cambodia.
Kaavan was surprise for dictator’s daughter
Kaavan came to the Marghuzar Zoo in 1985, as a baby, from the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage in Sri Lanka, managed by the Sri Lankan government.
The acquisition was arranged by General Ziaul Haq, the then-military ruler of Pakistan, as a surprise for his daughter Zain Zia.
“It is thought the year-old calf was gifted to General Haq’s government as thanks for backing the Sri Lankan army during an insurgency,” Khan said.
Kaavan was sent to the Marghuzar Zoo, opened in 1978, but already notorious for allegedly corrupt management by “business mafias” of concessionaires related to “influential zoo employees,” Khan said.
Conditions at the Marghuzar Zoo eventually alarmed the Pakistan Wildlife Foundation, leading to the formation of Friends of Islamabad Zoo.
“A dry moat with narrow concrete walls”
“There is no veterinary facility, and no medicine supplies in the zoo,” Friends of Islamabad Zoo volunteer Mohammad bin Naveed told Khan. “There is no room where a surgery can be performed, and no space where a sick animal can be kept in isolation.”
“Kaavan’s job,” said Khan, “was to stand at the fence to raise his trunk as a begging bowl when his mahout, or handler, prodded him with a bull hook, collecting the money the crowd gave him. Kaavan’s nights were spent idling around his half-acre enclosure, containing a hut with a concrete floor.”
A Vier Pfoten team reported in 2016 that Kaavan’s habitat consisted of “a dry moat with narrow concrete walls; compacted soil; no other natural loose substrate, no trees, logs, bushes, rocks, tires or any other structures.”
Recounted Gannon of Associated Press, “The zoo once housed 500 animals, but by August 2020, barely 30 were still alive, and Kaavan’s condition had deteriorated.”
“All the zoo animals should be evacuated”
“All the zoo animals should be evacuated and released to sanctuary,” Khalil told ANIMALS 24-7 on September 24, 2020, by which time he had already begun the job.
“All that remain,” after Kaavan’s departure, “are a deer, a monkey, and two retired dancing bears — Suzie and Bubaloo — whose teeth had all been removed by their previous owners to stop them from biting customers and the owners,” Gannon reported.
“The bears will be relocated to Jordan in December 2020 with the assistance of the Princess Alia Foundation, headed by the eldest daughter of the Jordan’s late King Hussein,” Gannon said.
Rescuing animals from failed zoos has become more-or-less a specialty for Khalil, 56, who joined the Austrian-based animal charity Vier Pfoten as a volunteer in 1994. Originally from Egypt, Khalil had relocated to Vienna, Austria, to advance his skills as a veterinarian.
Led mobile spay/neuter missions in eastern Europe
Vier Pfoten founder Helmut Dungler hired Khalil in 1997 to lead mobile spay/neuter missions to former Iron Curtain nations. Khalil distinguished himself in that role, but became the public face of Vier Pfoten through facilitating dramatic rescues of captive wildlife.
“Although Amir is always traveling and sees so much suffering,” Dungler said, “he is always in a good mood. However, one should not underestimate his tenacity.”
Dancing bears & Tripoli
Among Khalil’s early successes was establishing the Belitsa Dancing Bear Park in the woodland reserves of the Rila mountains of Bulgaria in 2000, at last enabling Bulgarian police to enforce a 1993 law prohibiting dancing bear acts by giving them somewhere to take confiscated bears.
The bears “used to live up to 20 hours in a day stuck in one small room, with just enough room to turn. Now they move freely, swim, and play,” Khalil pointed out to visitors.
On September 9, 2011, days after the fall of former Libyan dictator Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, Khalil led a rescue team to the aid of the 700 animals at the Tripoli Zoo.
This made Vier Pfoten the first outside animal charity allowed to work in Libya in more than 40 years.
CNN senior international correspondent Nic Robertson discovered on August 30, 2011 that the zoo animals had been abandoned by staff fleeing heavy fighting.
“The body of a gazelle lies near an empty feeding bin,” opened Hadeel Al-Shalchi of Associated Press. in a September 1 follow-up. “Empty bullet casings are scattered everywhere. A patch of black grass near the monkey cage shows where a rocket-propelled grenade hit. A turtle cage is cracked by gunfire, garbage is piled everywhere, and three forlorn hippopotamuses hang their heads in a filthy pit.”
Bear rescue & rehab in Ukraine––& s/n too
After helping the Tripoli Zoo animals, Khalil in December 2011 helped to establish the bear Rehabilitation Centre at the National Nature Park Synevyr in Ukraine. The first rescued bear, Rosa, had “lived in a small cage next to a roadside gas station and motel,” living on “candies, sugar and coffee,” Khalil told media.
Vier Pfoten “has received confirmed figures of 40 brown bears in terrible conditions across the Ukraine in private captivity, in restaurants, hotels, roadside petrol stations, and zoos. Many of these bears have been forced to drink vodka or beer, and are referred to as ‘vodka’ bears,” Khalil continued through publicist Kim Phillips.
“Rosa will now have a life suitable to her species in an environment as close as possible to her natural habitat,” Khalil finished, praising the Ukrainian government “for banning the keeping of bears in private captivity.”
By February 2012 the Ukrainian bear rescue mission had progressed to rescuing bears used as live bait in training hunting dogs.
Along the way, Khalil and Vier Pfoten had introduced spay/neuter and identification programs for stray dogs in the Ukrainian cities of Kyiv, Donetsk, Kharkiv and Lviv.
In Thailand four years later, in 2016, Khalil encouraged the Thailand Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation to close the Wat Pha Luang Ta Bua Yanasampanno, or “Tiger Temple,” in Kanchanaburi, reportedly impounding 147 tigers in a series of raids.
Unfortunately, the Thai government failed to implement plans to establish a quality sanctuary for the tigers, offered by Vier Pfoten and the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society. At least 86 of the confiscated tigers died at government holding facilities during the next three years.
“Worst zoo in the world”
In August 2016 Khalil arranged the closure of the Khan Yunis Zoo in the southern Gaza strip of Palestine, which had been called “the worst zoo in the world.”
“Earlier this year, the Khan Yunis Zoo began facing financial difficulties and could no longer adequately care for its animals,” reported Sharon Udasin of the Jerusalem Post. “In order to attract more visitors, the zoo’s owner took to exhibiting mummified cadavers of animals.”
The tiger Laziz went to the Lionrock sanctuary operated by Vier Pfoten in South Africa, a former hunting ranch rehabilitated under Khalil’s direction, while tortoises, porcupines, an emu and various other small animals went to the New Hope Center at the Al Ma’wa [Refuge] for Nature & Wildlife sanctuary, jointly managed by Vier Pfoten and the Princess Alia Foundation.
Mosul, Aleppo, & back to Gaza
March 2017 saw Khalil in Mosul, Iraq, arranging the evacuation to Jordan of Simba the lion and Lula the bear, the last survivors of the Mosul zoo after a three-year occupation by the Islamic State of Iraq militia, followed by five months of fighting as the Iraqi government retook the city. Getting the two animals out, finally accomplished in mid-April 2017, took Khalil weeks of negotiation.
In July 2017 Khalil led a similar mission that ended with trucking three lions, two tigers, two bears, and two hyenas from the Aalim al Sahar or Magic World zoo in Aleppo, Syria, to a wildlife rehabilitation center in Turkey.
Khalil returned to Gaza for the fifth time altogether in March 2018, after the owner of the privately operated Rafah Zoo “unsuccessfully tried to sell three lion cubs online, hoping to use any profits to buy food for the rest of his animals,” reported Oliver Whang for National Public Radio.
“The work can come at personal risk”
Khalil, mentioned Whang, “has calmed traumatized bears from Syria and vaccinated thousands of stray dogs in Myanmar. The work can come at personal risk: in Kosovo, he had a pistol held to his head. In Kenya, he says, gunmen shot up his car.”
Explained Khalil, “We go to places where the government doesn’t exist. No one cares. And where no one will believe you are coming to save animals. You see everyone escaping from a city like Mosul, going out. Thousands and thousands. And you are the only car going the other way around. You are going inside.”
Khalil got the Rafah Zoo animals out by enlisting the aid of the head of the Hamas faction in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, waiting outside a hotel for three hours for a 15-minute meeting.
“Hamas officials were upset,” Whang said, “that Khalil had given an interview to the Israeli army’s Facebook page, thanking Israel for its help in coordinating passage.”
Said Khalil to Sinwar, “Hey, I’m not a journalist, I am a veterinary doctor and I have a problem.”
“The animal has no passport, has no nationality, & is not part of the conflict”
Continued Whang, “Hamas officials asked Khalil and Vier Pfoten to help establish a wildlife sanctuary in Gaza for mistreated and endangered animals. Khalil is conflicted about this. Only if “there are no longer bombs flying around the animals,” he says.
“Sometimes Khalil wishes he could have a normal life, eat a normal dinner with his three daughters without having to worry about conflict areas, mistreated animals or being trapped in crossfire,” Whang finished. “I am a human, I have my weaknesses,” he says. “But I come to be addicted. I am infected by my job.”
Said Khalil, “When you speak about animals, everyone is able to put his classification on the ground and carry the crate with you. And this is the reality. That the animal has no passport, has no nationality, and is not a part of the conflict.”