How Cher Helped Free "The World's Loneliest Elephant"

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Cher helped rescue Kaavan, a 36-year-old elephant, from a zoo in Pakistan (Credit: Friends of Islamabad Zoo/Facebook)

The cameraman zooms in on the anxious elephant, who paces back and forth. However, the pachyderm's demeanor instantly calms down upon hearing a soothing ballad from Disney’s Cinderella, “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes," sung to him by none other than American singer and actress Cher. The now-viral poignant video, published on YouTube on November 30, 2020, was the culmination of the pop singer and animal activist's four-year-long quest to save Kaavan, “The world's loneliest elephant."

Kaavan was just a year old when Sri Lankan officials gifted him to Pakistan in 1985. The now 36-year-old Asian elephant spent a large part of the next three decades shackled in chains in a confined space at the Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan. He was only brought out periodically to entertain zoo visitors by raising his trunk as a begging bowl when his mahout prodded him with a bullhook — a rod with a sharp hook. To make matters worse, his partner Saheli, a female elephant who arrived at the zoo in 1990, died in 2012, leaving the social animal with no companion. Lonely and isolated, Kaavan's mental and physical health rapidly deteriorated.

Kaavan was shackled with chains that prevent him from moving more than a few steps at a time (Credit: Freethewlld.org)

The animal's plight spurred activists to start a #FreeKaavan social media campaign that urged Pakistani officials to move the mammal to an elephant sanctuary. However, their pleas fell on deaf ears. In 2016, Cher was scrolling through her Twitter feed when she noticed messages by fans urging her to help Kaavan. "'They would not stop saying 'Cher, you have to do something, you have to fix this, you have to save him,’ ” she said in a Smithsonian Channel interview. “I thought, how can I fix this? How can I save an elephant who’s been shackled to a shed for 17 years and who is a thousand miles away?"'

After much deliberation, she reached out to fellow animal activists Mark Cowne and his wife, Gina Nelthorpe-Cowne, to help her launch a social media campaign to improve Kaavan’s living conditions. They first pushed for Kaavan to be unshackled and then persuaded the zoo to add a tin roof over his shed, water in the pool, and a tire for him to play with.

Kaavan is already making friends at the Cambodia Sanctuary (Credit: Freethewlld.org)

While the reforms were encouraging, the team soon realized that more needed to be done and established Free the Wild — a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing Kaavan and other wild animals in similar situations. It took over four years, but in 2020, an Islamabad high court ordered the Marghazar Zoo to shut down and relocate all its animal residents to new homes.

For Kaavan, that meant taking a seven-hour flight to the beautiful Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. Located in the provinces of Preah Vihear, Siem Reap, and Odor Mean Chey in the Kingdom of Cambodia, the approximately one-million-acre refuge is home to many wild animals, including tigers, bears, leopards, and, of course, Asian elephants.

Bua Noi, a female gorilla, has spent most of her life in a cage at Bangkok's Pata Zoo (Credit: Freethewlld.org)

According to Kaavan's new keeper, Sok Hong, the elephant is adjusting extremely well to his new habitat and has even picked his favorite female elephant from the three he has been mingling with since arrival. Once the pachyderm has been completely rehabilitated, he and his three female companions will be released and allowed to roam freely in the sanctuary's expansive grounds. As for Cher? She is already busy trying to free Bua Noi, a female gorilla who has spent the last three decades in a cage in the dilapidated Pata Zoo, located on the top floor of a Bangkok shopping mall!

Resources: www.freethewild.org, BBC.com, cambodiawildlifesanctuary.com, theguardian.com

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221 Comments
  • pokemaan
    pokemaanTuesday, February 23, 2021 at 8:24 am
    cher is amazing keep up the good work and that elephant must be so happy now :)
    • bunnylover800
      bunnylover800Friday, February 19, 2021 at 3:15 pm
      WHY did they do that to AN ELAPHANT of all animals they are really smart and intelligent animals
      • mercury_dust
        mercury_dustFriday, February 19, 2021 at 12:11 pm
        I actually can't believe some people are this cruel.
        • bunnylover880
          bunnylover880Sunday, February 21, 2021 at 12:09 pm
          yeah THATS SO MEAN!
        • cubas
          cubasFriday, February 19, 2021 at 5:24 am
          animals always have to live this way
          • chevy-uttecht
            chevy-uttechtThursday, February 18, 2021 at 4:53 pm
            yes this is very sad and really almost made me cry after watching this
            • muffintiime
              muffintiimeFriday, February 12, 2021 at 10:06 am
              I also think it's very sad that people do this to animals. The least they could do is give them a nice enclosure.
              • iluvchikenugget
                iluvchikenuggetTuesday, February 9, 2021 at 8:20 am
                nice
                • phoenix2011
                  phoenix2011Monday, February 8, 2021 at 10:17 am
                  awwww🥺
                  • luvmylipstick
                    luvmylipstickSunday, February 7, 2021 at 6:42 am
                    How cute!!
                    • rainbowbite
                      rainbowbiteSaturday, February 6, 2021 at 9:53 am
                      That is so sad 😭 💔I agree with you crazber!!! Animals are living beings. They should be treated fairly. This reminds me of the book "The One and Only Ivan." I'm glad that they helped Kaavan... 🐘 But we need to fight for Bua Noi, too! #FreeBuaNoi #StayStrong💪
                      • chevy-uttecht
                        chevy-uttechtThursday, February 18, 2021 at 4:54 pm
                        yes i agree with you 100% i am with you on this