On a glowing Sunday morning, the Asian elephant Kaavan continuously bobs his head, surrounded by officials, residents and young people for the last time at Islamabad’s zoo, under the foothills of the Margalla hills in the Pakistani capital.
Well-wishers have thrown colourful celebrations all week with music and balloons, to send-off the lonely elephant to its new home in Cambodia, on Sunday. The relocation of Kaavan follows a year long campaign by activists, backed by the American pop star Cher.
The music icon has written songs calling for Kaavan to be rescued from his grim and lonely condition at the zoo, and will meet the elephant upon its arrival in Cambodia, after she spent the last few days with him in Islamabad.
On Sunday morning, dozens of wildlife workers and experts led by animal rescue organisation Four Paws used a winch and rope to pull the sedated elephant into a custom-designed crate, in which he will be transported to the Cambodian city of Siem Reap.
The plight of Kaavan, an overweight 36 year-old elephant who lived in deplorable conditions, sparked global outrage after attention was drawn to the miserable state of Islamabad’s zoo. Conditions in animal enclosures and cages were so inadequate that a court in May ordered animals, including Kaavan, to be relocated.
Wildlife experts also noted that Kaavan was displaying signs of mental illness, leading to petition being signed by more than 400,000 people to free the chained elephant.
For decades, Kaavan has entertained a generation of children, including this author, who rode Kaavan as a child in the early 1990s.
Cher said in a statement, "My wishes have finally come true". "We have been counting down to this moment and dreaming of it for so long and to finally see Kaavan transported out of (Islamabad) zoo will remain with us forever." She tweeted that a documentary about his freedom will be out in 2021.
Cher on Friday also met Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, and Mr Khan thanked her for her campaign to relocate Kaavan. The pop icon also thanked Mr Khan in a tweet "for making it possible for me to take Kaavan to Cambodia".
Throughout the week, other music performances and farewells have been made for Pakistan's celebrity elephant, with greetings and goodbyes made by people from all walks of life.
“We are happy to spearheading the rescue mission of Kaavan and thankful to Cher and Pakistani authorities,” said Martin Bauer, a spokesman for Four Paws International, an animal rights group that has spearheaded the relocation mission.
In remarks to The National, he described his delight that Kaavan would now have a better life.
“This is a rare rescue mission to train the animal first and to take him to another country. We hope the media attention paves the way for many other wild animals still kept in captivity and shines a light on their suffering so that Four Paws can rescue them and protect them,” he said.
The National also spoke with team members from Four Paws in Islamabad zoo, including veterinarian Khalil Ahmad, who has been treating Kaavan’s wounds for the past three months. The team will accompany Kaavan to the Cambodia sanctuary.
“We are thrilled and really enjoyed our stay in Islamabad to treat Kaavan, and happy that he will finally get good company with other elephants in his new home in Cambodia,” said one team member.
But for some, Kaavan's departure was also a sad occasion.
Usama Javed, an Islamabad resident who came to see off Kaavan at the zoo told The National on Sunday that the animal would be remembered fondly.
“It’s a rather bitter sweet moment for all of us," he said.
"Back in the 1990s children used to come here and we used to enjoy rides over here. There were two elephants here, Kavaan and his partner who unfortunately died in 2012 and since then Kaavan has been very lonely. We are also very happy to see him go. He has been treated very poorly. It would be nice to see him go and enjoy his retirement in Cambodia with other elephants”.