Meet the ‘aggressive’ elephant saved from a life in chains, with a bit of help from Cher

An Asian elephant that has spent almost its entire existence chained to a concrete cage at a zoo in Pakistan will be sent to a sanctuary after a global campaign started by a tourist and championed by the singer Cher finally forced the issue to a head.

Kaavan, a 32-year-old male elephant, has been living in desperately depressing circumstances in Islamabad Zoo (previously Marghazar Zoo) since being taken away from his mother as a baby. He was a gift from Sri Lanka in 1985, and has effectively been on his feet for almost 30 years, after being placed in chains because of outbreaks of aggression. In 1992 he crushed a zoo worker to death.

The species is not easy to keep. When males reach sexual maturity at around 20-years-old they start coming into ‘musth’, a short but extreme state of arousal when levels of testosterone in the blood can increase 20 times and violence between competitors in the wild is common.

‘Asian elephants are aggressive by nature, especially in the mating season,’ Sunny Jamil of Help Welfare Organisation told the Pakistani paper Dawn earlier this year. ‘From November to March the animal is totally unpredictable. Moreover, small enclosures don’t allow them much movement to spend their energy. World class zoos arrange especial exercises for their elephants for an elephant must walk many kilometres every day to be healthy.’

Islamabad Zoo is rarely accused of being world class. The zoo is run by the controversial Capital Development Authority and its director, Abdul Rasheed, is a civil engineer. The facility has long been criticised for conditions that are woefully inadequate at best, and downright cruel at worst.

A man described by Dawn as an ‘old zoo hand’ told the publication that: ‘At one stage, the management started giving liquor to the elephant to control his aggression during the mating season. That was no way to calm down an elephant in rage.’

Kaavan’s partner Saheli, also a gift from Sri Lanka, died four years ago from an infection in her leg. She was just 22, extremely young for an Asian elephant, a species that commonly lives for 70 years or more.

The zoo renovated the elephant enclosure last year, and built a moat for Kaavan at a cost of Rs2.5 million, but the distressed animal soon smashed the water feature and was placed back in chains. Earlier this month experts diagnosed him with depression. Safwan Shahab Ahmad, who has studied the elephant for three decades and is the vice chairman of Pakistan Wildlife Foundation, said the behaviours he was exhibiting, such as head bobbing, demonstrated ‘a kind of mental illness’.

The worst of his suffering should be behind him now, though, after Samar Khan witnessed his appalling living conditions during a trip to the zoo whilst on holiday to Pakistan to visit relatives, and started a campaign to raise awareness of his pitiful plight. The fight won the backing of singer Cher, and has been supported by animal welfare groups.