Cher never intended to get involved in the rescue of a 8,700-pound elephant from a zoo in Pakistan. But after seeing copious calls on Twitter in 2016 to “Free Kaavan,” the “Goddess of Pop” found herself phoning Mark Cowne, a businessman she met at a party once, who she recalled had experience helping to move elephants in Africa.
“All of a sudden, I was just doing it,” Cher says. “I didn’t expect anything, but I was going to say to myself, ‘Yeah, you tried.’”
To her surprise, though, Cowne agreed to fly to Pakistan later that week. Cowne was previously involved with reintroducing elephants and other animals to the Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa. Cher, meanwhile, had no idea that she had just signed herself up for a five-year-long mission that would wind up involving dozens of global collaborators, a first-of-its kind legal ruling in Pakistan, negotiations with the governments of three countries and—to top it off—a pandemic. That journey is chronicled in a new Smithsonian Channel documentary, “Cher and the Loneliest Elephant,” which will be available to stream on April 22 on Paramount+.
After his birth in 1985 in Sri Lanka, Kaavan was promptly sent as a gift to the president of Pakistan’s daughter. The elephant wound up in the Islamabad Zoo, where he shared a small enclosure with a companion, Saheli. The two were frequently restrained and were not provided with adequate food, water or enrichment. In 2012, Saheli died of gangrene from an infection caused by her chains, leaving Kaavan alone.
Like many captive elephants, Kaavan suffered. He grew obese and developed pathological, repetitive behaviors—in his case, incessant rocking. “When an elephant is making those movements—their body’s going one way, their head is going another way—you know they’re in deep psychological despair,” Cher says. Kaavan’s frustration also manifested as aggression, and he killed two of his keepers, prompting the zoo to keep him in permanent chains.
Around 16,000 elephants live in captivity today, including 377 in the United States. While many in Asia are used for work and transport, others are kept by zoos and circuses. Because elephants do not breed well out of the wild, many in captivity—especially those used for entertainment—are abducted as calves. This can undermine conservation efforts, but animal welfare is the industry’s biggest problem, says Nitin Sekar, the national lead for elephant conservation for WWF-India.
While not all elephants are kept in deplorable conditions, they have special characteristics that make them particularly ill-suited for life in a cage, including the need to move great distances, a desire for complex social lives and a high capacity for intelligence. Most captive facilities are unable to satisfy these natural requirements, Sekar says, and many places actively subject elephants to abuse.
In 2015, Samar Khan, a veterinarian from the U.S., dropped by the zoo while visiting family in Pakistan. She was horrified when she saw Kaavan and decided to launch a social media campaign to try to free him. Khan took to Twitter and to Change.org, creating a petition that garnered over 400,000 signatures. The message had already gone viral by the time, to Khan’s surprise, Cher responded.
“I remember when I started to hear about it [on Twitter], because it came in sort of a flood,” Cher says. “It was all ‘Save Kaavan, Save Kaavan’ and ‘Free Kaavan, Free Kaavan’—it was constant.”
Immediately after Cher and Cowne got involved, though, it became clear that authorities had no interest in parting with the zoo’s star attraction. “It was so hard in the beginning,” Cher says. “The administration didn’t even want to talk to us. They weren’t kind, they weren’t interested, they just really didn’t care.”
In 2016, the zoo agreed to provide Kaavan with more water and to unshackle him, but little else changed. The next year, Cher released a song, “Walls,” to bring attention to Kaavan and to launch the Free the Wild Foundation, a non-profit organization that Cher co-founded with Cowne to promote welfare for captive animals.
Still, Kaavan probably would have remained behind bars were it not for the efforts of Owais Awan, a Pakistani lawyer who took the zoo to court to recognize the rights of nonhuman animals and to demand Kaavan’s release. Awan won the landmark case, setting a precedent for animal rights in Pakistan. Unexpectedly, the high court ordered that not only must Kaavan be freed, but the entire zoo must be shut down, marking a major victory for all of the animals there.
The order was issued in May 2020, however, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. This added an additional layer of difficulty to the already logistically complex task of freeing the elephant. For help, Cher, Cowne and their colleagues turned to Amir Khalil, a veterinarian with Four Paws, a non-profit group that leads animal rescue missions. “We had a lot of challenges in preparation, but Kaavan was a very good friend and a cooperative guy,” Khalil says.
The team secured a spot for Kaavan at the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary, a 30,000-acre forested property near Angkor Wat. Transporting the massive bull elephant over 3,200 miles to Cambodia required Khalil and his colleagues to train Kaavan to willingly enter a customized crate built to withstand an elephant’s brute strength, and putting Kaavan on a diet to meet strict weight requirements for air travel. They also worked to reduce Kaavan’s aggression and improve his mental health.
“Dr. Amir made friends with Kaavan and got him into that cage,” Cher says. “I don’t think anyone else would have been able to do that.”
The team in Pakistan secured permission to fly Kaavan through India’s airspace, something that is normally restricted due to tensions between the two nations. They also received a special permit to land at an airport that had been closed for six months due to Covid-19.
“I’m not a political person, but to have people from different countries and religions and backgrounds saying ‘Let’s do something good,’ I love that so much,” Khalil says. “Kaavan united many people worldwide with his positive message of hope and possibility.”
Kaavan arrived at his new home in November 2020, and has reportedly been settling in since then. He has a healthy appetite and is bonding with three female friends. Soon, he will be released from a smaller, temporary enclosure into the property’s sprawling natural forest—something he has not experienced since he was a calf.
Cher, who joined Kaavan for his departure from Pakistan and his arrival to his new home in Cambodia, has continued to check up on him through video chat. “Oh, he’s so happy there,” Cher says. “I knew it the moment we let him out of the crate.”
“Elephants are so amazing, they’re like human beings, only better,” Cher adds.
While Kaavan’s story had a happy ending, thousands of captive elephants continue to be kept in abusive or inadequate conditions around the world, says Rachel Matthews, the director of the captive animal law enforcement division of the PETA Foundation, who was not involved in Kaavan’s rescue. Progress on this issue has been slow, but it is beginning.
Tripadvisor, for example, recently announced that it would end all ticket sales for elephant encounters, and in an expanding number of countries and U.S. states, formal bans now prohibit circuses from using elephants. Some zoos have made positive changes for elephant welfare, while others, including the Detroit Zoo, have gone so far as to close their elephant exhibits and sent their animals to reputable sanctuaries. “In an ideal world, sanctuaries would no longer be needed, because elephant captivity would have ended,” Matthews says.
Celebrities like Cher can play an important role in making that goal a reality, Matthews adds, because “when they speak, the world listens.”
“If Cher gets a generation or two of people to reconsider supporting a circus or a zoo that has a poorly kept elephant, that’s progress,” says Sekar. “It reduces the social and economic incentives for keeping an elephant in a miserable state just to make a quick buck.”
Cher is well aware of her platform, including the documentary, and plans to use it to achieve the maximum amount of good for improving animal welfare, especially for elephants. “It’s a beginning, because I see now that it is possible,” she says. “If I can do something, I will just do it.”