She is the 74-year-old, always glamorous “Goddess of Pop”. He spent 27 years in chains, once killed a zoo keeper and has been dubbed the world’s loneliest elephant.
The unlikely couple will meet next week in Cambodia, where they will plunge into a jungle once controlled by the Khmer Rouge when the 35-year-old bull elephant named Kaavan is brought to a sanctuary in Pakistan after years of abusive captivity.
The move will complete a year-long effort to rescue Kaavan, who was given as a baby by the Sri Lankan government to the chief of the Pakistani army. He ended up at the Islamabad Zoo, where he lost his companion Saheli in 2012. He was reportedly beaten and handcuffed after trampling one of his zookeepers to death, stealing his food by handlers, and ultimately collapsing into self-harm and mental illness.
Kaavan has become a celeb among animal rights activists – none is more famous than Cher, the Oscar-winning singer who co-founded Free the Wild, an animal welfare charity.
Her co-founder Mark Cowne said the pop legend was on her way to Pakistan and would then travel to Cambodia, where she, the 4-ton Kaavan and her companions will meet the quarantine requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic and two entangled Asian bureaucracies.
Details of Cher’s trip are being kept under wraps, in part because the Smithsonian Channel is making a documentary around him. Free the Wild officials turned down requests to interview Cher, but in a press release she said she was “so proud” to be part of the rescue.
Cher has indicated she has been coming to Cambodia since May when Kaavan was liberated by a court order in Pakistan. Calling his freedom one of the “greatest moments” of her life, she tweeted in October that she “can’t wait to sing to him on his way to Cambodia.”
Pop legend Cher helped save the elephant Kaavan from Pakistan.
(Anthony Harvey / AFP / Getty Images)
Learning of Kaavan’s plight in 2016, Cher hired a legal team to press for his freedom, citing inhuman treatment of a non-native animal. While Asian elephants roam long stretches in the wild, Kaavan is said to have been kept in a small enclosure with few leaves at the zoo in Pakistan’s capital.
In May, the Islamabad High Court ordered the elephant and hundreds of other animals to be removed from the zoo and ordered the facility to be closed.
“This is definitely a win,” said Martin Bauer, director of international public relations at Four Paws, a global animal welfare organization involved in the Kaavan rescue. “It’s not that we do this because the Kaavan is a shiny object – it’s what we do. We reveal suffering, rescue and protect animals in need. “
According to Bauer, Four Paws, which was founded 30 years ago, helped save hundreds of animals. Dr. Amir Khlil, a four-paw veterinarian treating Kaavan, has rescued more than 100 zoo animals from Gaza, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon in the past four years alone, Bauer said.
The cost of the operation will be split between Free the Wild and Four Paws, with Free the Wild working with journalist and businessman Eric Margolis to pay for the airlift. A source close to the facility said the total cost was in the mid six-digit range.
Kaavan is seen with a caretaker at the Islamabad Zoo in 2016.
(Anjum Naveed / Associated Press)
Kaavan – considered by rescue organizations to be one of the largest animals ever transported by plane – is said to go on board a Russian freight elevator, which is equipped with a special stall to prevent him from falling during the flight. In a tweet, Cher described the container as a “very large dog crate”.
Cher is expected to take a separate flight and meet Kavaan in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap on Monday, Cowne said. The elephant is taken to the Cambodian nature reserve by truck for several hours, where a first enclosure for Kaavan has been prepared. Three female elephants also roam the jungle and give him the camaraderie that he lacked in Pakistan.
“For Cambodia, we are proud to have been chosen as the location for Kaavan. We will take care of the elephant and take care of its health, ”said Neth Pheaktra, spokesman for the Cambodian Ministry of Environment.
Officials said Cher and others involved in the rescue were meeting coranavirus-related health requirements in both Pakistan and Cambodia, which requires visitors to be quarantined for two days upon arrival. Cambodia has not reported any deaths from COVID-19, but the recent revelation that an infected Hungarian diplomat had entered the country closed schools in Phnom Penh, the capital, for two weeks.
“The government is understandably very strict right now,” said Darrick Thomson, co-founder of the Save the Elephant Foundation, which manages the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary.
Cowne said the tour group would actually be in its own bubble and in a remote location, which should allow the mission to proceed as planned, with little fanfare and the media at a distance.
“The authorities have been incredibly helpful and we will do everything we can to adhere to the rules they have given us,” he said.
Animal rescues on this scale are rare, but it won’t be the first for Cambodia – in 1971 Adm. John McCain, the father of the late Senator John McCain, gave an elephant to Cambodia’s then Prime Minister Lon Nol. The elephant, which was reportedly carrying ammunition for guerrillas from Vietnam, was taken to the children’s section of the Los Angeles Zoo by the elder McCain.
For some Cambodians, however, Cher was the bigger story.
At Space Hair Salon and Bar, a gay club in Phnom Penh’s red light district, news of the LGBTQ icon’s imminent arrival attracted applause and a spontaneous rendition of her 1998 hit “Believe”.
“I love her. It’s my dream to get to know her,” said Sopheap Chuk, 37, hairdresser, model and owner of Space Hair. “I’ve been playing her music here every night for eight years.”
Chuk said he would drive the five hours by road to Siem Reap to catch a glimpse of Cher and ask her to visit his bar.
“I hope she loves Cambodia,” he said. “That’s the best thing that can happen to us all year round.”
McDermid and Bopha Phorn are special correspondents. The special correspondent Rathana Phin contributed to this report.