An elephant flown from captivity in Pakistan to Cambodia on Monday will no longer be the “world’s loneliest” after a rescue that took years to arrange.
The case of Kaavan – an overweight, 36-year-old bull elephant – sparked global uproar from animal rights groups, who petitioned for his move from an Islamabad zoo accused of substandard care and conditions.
His cause was boosted by a spirited social media campaign by the singer Cher, who travelled to Pakistan to see him off.
Wearing a black face mask, the singer was also on hand at Siem Reap airport and waved excitedly at the plane after it landed about 2.30pm.
"I am so proud he is here," she told AFP, after greeting Kaavan through an opening at the base of the crate. "He's going to be really happy here."
Kaavan's flight took seven hours, during which he remained calm, according to Four Paws, the animal welfare group that organised his rescue. Amir Khalil, a veterinarian working with the Austria-based group, said he behaved "like a frequent flyer".
"Kaavan was eating, was not stressed – he was even sleeping a bit, standing, leaning against the crate wall," he said
Four Paws said Kaavan’s next stop would be his new home, a wildlife sanctuary in Oddar Meanchey province where he will live with about 600 other elephants.
"Cambodia is pleased to welcome Kaavan. No longer will he be 'the world's loneliest elephant'," deputy environment minister Neth Pheaktra said.
"We expect to breed Kaavan with local elephants – this is an effort to conserve the genetic fold," the minister told AFP.
Before he was transported to the sanctuary, monks offered him bananas and watermelon, chanting prayers and sprinkling holy water on his crate to bless him.
Kaavan's journey is the culmination of years of campaigning by animal rights groups, who say the animal's behaviour demonstrated "a kind of mental illness" probably a result of the woeful conditions at the zoo.
In May, a Pakistani judge ordered that all the animals at the zoo be moved.
Cher had tweeted that the decision marked "one of the greatest moments" of her life.
A team of vets and experts from Four Paws spent months working with Kaavan to get him ready for the trip – a complicated process because of his size and the amount of food needed en route.
The elephant also had to be taught to enter the huge metal crate that was placed in a cargo plane for the seven-hour flight.
Four Paws, with Islamabad authorities, also safely moved three wolves and some monkeys from the zoo. Currently only two Himalayan brown bears, a deer and a solitary monkey remain.