Human Interest

With Sinatra beats, Elephant Kaavan readies for freedom from Pakistani zoo

By Jaime Leon

Islamabad, Nov 12 (efe-epa).- To the beats of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” and on a restricted diet, elephant Kaavan, Pakistan’s last Asian elephant, is preparing for his release from a zoo in Islamabad following an international campaign for his freedom from decades in a lock-up.

Kaavan will be released in a Cambodian sanctuary to help him recover from depression and mental problems.

The grayish pachyderm, aged 37, will be released into a Cambodian wildlife sanctuary at the end of this month, with the help of animal rights organization Four Paws International in a complex operation involving a seven-hour flight from Islamabad to Phnom Penh.

All the animals at the Islamabad zoo are being moved to other places thanks to years of campaigns by activists, including American singer Cher.

Following the pressure, an Islamabad court in May directed the authorities to shut down the zoo due to its poor condition and release the elephant into a sanctuary.

In recent years, at least 500 animals have died at the zoo due to the poor conditions and lack of medical care.

Releasing the elephant is not easy, given its mental state after being locked up for 36 years in a small enclosure, most of the time, shackled. The animal has remained in solitude since the death of his companion Saheli in 2012.

Kaavan continuously moves his head and trunk from side to side, a symptom of stress.

“It is a mental disturbance … when you are chained for over 30 years,” Amir Khalil, leader of the Four Paws International team that will be responsible for the release operation, told EFE.

When Khalil arrived in Islamabad in August, he found the elephant aggressive and unapproachable. One day, out of boredom, he began singing Sinatra’s “My Way” that appeared to relax the animal.

“I noticed that the elephant really needed to bond. No one really cared for the elephant for many many years,” said the Austrian veterinarian of Egyptian origin.

Khalil has 27 years of experience, during which he has evacuated animals from war zones of Syria, Iraq, and Gaza.

Now he sings Sinatra songs to the elephant every day or puts them on the phone while feeding the animal or during his daily exercise.

Another problem is the animal being overweight, considering years of being fed daily with 200 kg of sugar cane, besides other meals. So they have put Kaavan on a strict diet.

With its aggression brought under control and getting it to lose hundreds of kilograms of weight, the Four Paws team now focuses on helping Kaavan to get used to the container that will be used for its transport to Cambodia on a private flight.

“One of the challenges is to avoid the elephant of shaking inside the airplane, because the pilot will not be very amused,” Ingo Schmidinger, who is training the elephant, told EFE.

Schmidinger has to get the elephant into the container and allow its legs to be chained – a safety requirement for the flight. For this, he needs Kaavan to trust him.

“He does not have to love me but we should came along at least,” joked the trainer from Germany.

During training, Schmidinger gets the animal into the container by luring it with food, and once inside, he gives it more food so that it gets used to the narrow cage.

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