Where will Kaavan’s next home be? 

Kaavan was aged one in 1985 when he first set foot in Pakistan. 

There was global outrage over the treatment of the Sri Lankan elephant at the capital’s Islamabad Zoo several years ago with a petition garnering more than 200,000 signatures. 

The Islamabad High Court recently ordered wildlife officials to consult with Sri Lanka, where the Asian elephant came from, to find him a “suitable sanctuary” within 30 days.

Campaigning for Kaavan’s freedom began when his mate died in 2012 and it became apparent that Kaavan was lonely. One notable high-profile advocate for Kaavan’s case was American singer, Cher. Being an animal rights advocate, Cher was very excited to hear that Kaavan would be set free. She shared her delight on Twitter.

“We have just heard from (the) Pakistan High Court. Kaavan is free,” the singer said on Twitter on Thursday in capital letters. “This is one of the greatest moments of my life.” 

Where will Kaavan’s next home be? Would he survive in the wild? Will a sanctuary be a better home? 

Asia Ecotourism Network Board Member and committed environmentalist Srilal Miththapala highlighted a few concerns on why Kaavan wouldn’t fare well in the wild. “On principle, I am very happy if it has been released from a poor captive facility. But more importantly, what will become of it? Most captive elephants cannot be freed into the wild because they cannot fend for themselves. So, such releases have to be carefully managed. These animals have been looked after all their lives. It’s easy for people to say ‘release them, release them!’ but there is a lot more to it than that. Transporting an elephant is not an easy task.”

Miththapala recalled the instance of the old elephant – Bandula – in the Dehiwala Zoo that they were trying to send to Hambantota. “He was 52 years old and suffering from arthritis. I told them that he would die on the way. What they should do is let him live the last few years of his life peacefully in a nice compound and have him taken care of.”

In principle, according to Miththapala, yes, captivity is bad. However, that means we should prevent future captivity, not confuse those that already are in zoos. “Age is another problem; in Udawalawe, they release the elephants back to the wild by the age of seven. Only then can they be successfully reintroduced. They can learn the ways of the wild and join another herd.”

Kaavan to be sent to Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary

Amidst such concerns, The Morning Brunch learned from wildlife activist Panchali Panapitiya, who herself was involved in the campaign of Kaavan, that the elephant is in fact going to be sent to the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. 

Speaking to The Morning Brunch, Panapitiya said that while campaigning for his freedom began a while back, the legal procedures relating to his freedom began about five years ago. Since then, Kaavan’s case has attracted a  great deal of international media coverage and as Panapitiya mentioned, has been reported in languages she doesn’t even understand, such as Algerian and Korean. This is how, she speculated, Cher became involved in the case. 

Due to the campaign being so widely recognised, she said that measures have already been taken to ensure that Kaavan will have a perfect life hereafter. While she understands that it is not easy for an elephant to simply be thrown back into a group of other elephants, she said that with the right procedures and care, they will be able to easily get used to the “sanctuary” – which in fact, is not just the wild. 

She spoke of many sanctuaries around the globe including the best one, in her opinion, which is the Global Sanctuary for Elephants in Brazil. She related the experience of another elephant, Mara, who suffered greatly going from circuses to zoos and finally ending up in a zoo in Argentina, after which she was sent to the sanctuary in Brazil. She explained how lovingly and kindly the elephants are treated when brought there. She also spoke of how they gently and patiently first took care of her in a pen where she was able to observe and communicate with the other elephants from afar. Mara even recognised another elephant whom she has known at another circus or zoo and then was able to happily join the sanctuary. 

Panapitiya shared how this is a complete haven compared to what we can find in Sri Lanka. She stated that Sri Lanka’s so-called sanctuaries are not sanctuaries at all and still engage in unethical treatments of the animals, which contradict the international standards of a sanctuary. She said that in places such as Pinnawala, we still engage in cruel acts such as chaining the elephants, keeping them in captive breeding programmes, and sending them off to zoos; a case in point being Kaavan. 

She talked about how sad Kaavan’s story is, being alienated at the tender age of one. Elephants, according to her expertise, are usually tended to by their mothers, until at least the age of five. Poor Kaavan never was, which is why he must be handled with such care and kindness. “This psychology of elephants is not understood in Sri Lanka; here, they think that unless you shout at an elephant, they will not understand you, but that is not the way.”

She said that here, animals are still treated like slaves. The term “tame elephants” is not used by activists such as Panapitiya. Instead, they say “enslaved elephants”. This is because, as explained, elephants cannot be tamed or domesticated. Elephants have always been wild animals. “Dogs aren’t wolves, are they? This is because they have evolved to be domesticated. Elephants do not have such a changed gene,” she explained.

Hence, Panapitiya shared that there is no way Kaavan will be brought back to Sri Lanka. The sanctuary where Kaavan is to be sent lies in Cambodia known as the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary. While many sanctuaries have offered to take him, the campaigners have decided this place would be the best. 

Kaavan is still in Pakistan. However, the judge of the case has ruled that he could be released in 30 to 40 days. This is another matter of concern, as Panapitiya puts it, as Kaavan would need at least 90 days to prepare for his journey to Cambodia. The campaigners are doing the best they can to make it all possible for this global sweetheart. 

Good wishes for Kaavan 

Commenting on the matter, Crime Scene Investigation (CSI) expert and Serendipity Wildlife Foundation Founder Ravi Perera, shared that a zoo or a circus is not a place for an elephant. He said: “Kaavan’s behaviour and mannerisms certainly showed the sad and neglected state he was in.  We have seen various incidents in the years gone by where elephants have re-lived their past and finally reached a point where they have retaliated with death and destruction, eventually facing death themselves. Hopefully, Kaavan will find himself in a loving sanctuary where he can roam freely and live the rest of his life, happy. Kudos to all those from different parts of the world who never gave up, and fought hard for his freedom.”