Elephants are amazing creatures with huge brains and big hearts. Long-term studies have shown that the animals are self-aware, compassionate and even grieve for their dead. Despite all this, some elephants in captivity are still treated with incredible cruelty – as exemplified by the conditions that a poor pachyderm called Kaavan was forced to endure.
In 1985, when he was just a year old, this Asian elephant was ripped away from his homeland in Sri Lanka. Instead of roaming free with his herd, then, Kaavan spent his whole life confined to a small enclosure at Islamabad’s Murghazar Zoo in Pakistan. Around the elephant display, a chain-linked fence marked the insufficient boundaries of Kaavan’s world.
And even before his bones were allowed to grow properly, the sweet little elephant was thrown into servitude. Kaavan’s handlers forced him to carry children on his back and march them around his pen all day long, while the crowds cheered – unaware that they were a part of his shameful cycle of torment.
Kaavan lived alone in his pitiful prison until 1992 when the Marghazar Zoo – now officially the Islamabad Zoo – was given a female elephant from the Bangladeshi government. She was called Saheli and became Kaavan’s close companion for 20 years until her premature death in 2012, at an age woefully young for an elephant.
Normally, elephants in the wild can live for up to 70 years – but Saheli died at 22 years of age from an infection in the leg. Activists blamed the zoo’s administration, the Capital Development Authority (CDA), for neglecting Saheli’s needs and were appalled by their lackluster response to improve living conditions at Islamabad Zoo.
And Saheli’s death hit her companion Kaavan hard, and his behavior changed. In particular, he started to bob his head repetitively from side-to-side – a behavioral tic called “weaving,” which is only seen in depressed elephants in captivity. Instead of treating his grief, however, the zoo staff made his situation even worse.
Against expert advice to provide Kaavan with another mate and better living conditions, his handlers chained the grieving elephant’s legs. They claimed that this was to prevent uncontrollable behavior and to limit his potential to harm staff and visitors.
Animal rights activists, meanwhile, campaigned to get Kaavan’s chains removed, and the huge public outcry moved Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to speak up for the elephant. At first, the publicity forced the Islamabad Zoo to remove the chains – but within three months, poor Kaavan was shackled again.
And according to statements from previous employees, the elephant wasn’t the only animal the zoo couldn’t keep properly. “The CDA management has no sense of running a zoo. Animal experts are astonished when they learn that a civil engineer is working as [a zoo director],” a former worker there told Pakistani newspaper Dawn in January 2016.
Protests were once again made to free Kaavan, but this time they seemed to be falling on deaf ears. That is, until Samar Khan’s intervention in 2015. Khan, an American national originally from Pakistan, was visiting family when she heard of Kaavan’s situation and paid him a visit at the zoo.
After witnessing the suffering elephant’s living conditions, Khan was disgusted by how Kaavan was being treated. She felt she had to do something and, as a result, set up an online petition to get his shackles removed. “His legs were chained up to [the] limit where he could move in his enclosure,” she wrote in the petition’s description.
“But [the chains] didn’t seem to matter, because for the entire time I was there Kaavan didn’t move. The only thing that moved was his head, as it bobbed repetitively from right and left,” she wrote. To her surprise, the petition was a huge success at drawing attention to Kaavan’s plight.
As of August 2016, in fact, the petition had over 405,000 signatures from around the world; it even drew the support of animal lover and celebrity singer Cher, who spoke up in defense of Kaavan. Khan’s Facebook page “Free Kaavan the Elephant” was also effective with its online target audience.
“I had no idea that the petition would go viral, but I wanted to use the huge number of Kaavan’s fans for a force for good,” Khan told website The Dodo in July 2016. “We were able to recruit a team of volunteers who help out on the ground in Islamabad. We also have so many amazing foreign supporters who have come out and internationally protested to help Kaavan,” she added.
Finally, in September 2015 Kaavan’s chains were once again removed from his ankles – giving him free roam of his yet still unsatisfactory enclosure. To be sure, though, the Free Kaavan team, as it came to be known, saw this as a successful first step in what might be an otherwise long road toward reaching their goal.
For example, the zoo would often re-shackle Kaavan – but, each time, volunteers were keeping close watch, would publicize Kaavan’s treatment and get him unshackled again. Ultimately the zoo had to capitulate, because the team’s observations confirmed that Kaavan was in no way violent. Indeed, he would often wander up to greet his new support team in a friendly way. “He recognizes them and always ambles over to say hi when he sees them,” Khan said to The Dodo.
Meanwhile, in July 2016 Faryal Gauhar, head of communications for the Free Kaavan team, took the elephant’s case to the Pakistani senate with the assistance of the Help Welfare Organization. Armed with logical arguments from animal experts and tons of research, Gauhar presented the team’s case to move Kaavan out of his enclosure and into a sanctuary.
When the senate’s verdict came in, then, the team couldn’t believe their ears: Kaavan was going to be moved to a sanctuary. “The chairman of the Pakistani senate has decreed that Kaavan must be transferred to [a] sanctuary! I can’t believe it,” Khan told The Dodo after the decision had been made.
“I wrote Kaavan’s petition nearly a year ago with the hopes of just getting Kaavan’s story out there. I didn’t know what to expect. I’m so grateful to our Free Kaavan team for working so hard; together we were able to accomplish what many told us was impossible,” she added.
There is one final vote left in the Senate on specifically which sanctuary to move Kaavan to; the team is urging officials to support his relocation to the Four Paws International charity’s large sanctuary, being built on a Myanmar national reserve. But wherever he goes, if anyone deserves a life of freedom it’s Kaavan – and we hope that after his three decades of suffering, his story of tragedy is finally coming to an end.