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Cher welcomes 'world's loneliest elephant' to new home in Cambodia

Superstar Cher welcomed "the world's loneliest elephant" to Cambodia Monday to begin a new life at a specialised sanctuary after the creature was rescued from grim conditions in a Pakistani zoo.

Cher welcomes 'world's loneliest elephant' to new home in Cambodia
US pop singer Cher poses in front of the crate containing Kaavan the Asian elephant upon his arrival in Cambodia from Pakistan at Siem Reap International Airport in Siem Reap on November 30, 2020. AFP
The plight of Kaavan -- a 36-year-old bull elephant at Islamabad's dilapidated zoo and originally from Sri Lanka -- sparked global uproar from animal rights groups, who launched a campaign to save him.

His cause was boosted by spirited social media support from actress and musician Cher, who travelled to see him off from Pakistan and then to Cambodia to welcome him to his new home.

Wearing a black face mask, the Oscar winner was on hand at Siem Reap airport and waved excitedly at the plane after it landed around 2:30 pm (0730 GMT).

"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," said Cher, adding that she was hopeful his ordeal was over.

Mammoth undertaking

Kaavan's much-anticipated journey was "uneventful", said Amir Khalil, a veterinarian from animal welfare group Four Paws, adding he behaved "like a frequent flyer".

"Kaavan was eating, was not stressed -- he was even a little bit sleeping, standing, leaning at the crate wall," he said. 

Transporting an adult elephant by plane is no small task, and has only been undertaken a handful of times.

Helpers packed his trunk with 200 kilos (450 pounds) of food to snack on during the seven-hour flight, while a tube system was installed in his transport crate aboard a jumbo Russian cargo plane to handle up to 200 litres (58 gallons) of urine.

After Kaavan touched down, monks offered him fruit, chanted prayers and sprinkled holy water on his crate to bless him.

For the last leg, he was loaded onto a truck for the three-hour journey to his new home, a wildlife sanctuary in Oddar Meanchey province which already hosts three female elephants.

Cher followed behind in her own vehicle as Kaavan made his way through farmland and past the famous Angkor Wat temple. 

"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.

After being unloaded from his giant travelling crate, Kaavan walked around his new enclosure -- perhaps glad to stretch his legs after his long journey.

Years of campaigning

Kaavan's move is the culmination of years of campaigning from animal rights groups, who say the animal's behaviour in captivity demonstrated "a kind of mental illness" likely due to the zoo's woeful conditions.

In May, a Pakistani judge ordered that all the animals at the zoo be moved.

Upon hearing about Kaavan's freedom, Cher had tweeted that the decision marked "one of the greatest moments" of her life. 

A team of vets and experts from Austria-based Four Paws spent months working with Kaavan to get him ready for the trip -- a complicated process due to his size and the amount of food needed en route.

The elephant also had to be taught to enter the four-tonne metal crate that was then secured in the belly of a mammoth Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane for the journey.

Four Paws, along with Islamabad authorities, also safely moved three wolves and some monkeys from the zoo. Currently only two Himalayan brown bears, one deer and one monkey remain.

Topics: Cher , "the world's loneliest elephant" , Cambodia , Kaavan , Amir Khalil
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