Kaavan is released into his new home in Siem Reap on Monday. AFP
American pop icon Cher welcomed "the world's loneliest elephant" to Cambodia on Monday to begin a new life at a specialised sanctuary after the creature was rescued from grim conditions in a Pakistani zoo.
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.
Cher walks past the crate containing Kaavan upon his arrival at Siem Reap Airport. AFP
His cause was boosted by a 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 2:30pm.
"I am so proud he is here," she said, 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.
Cher (2nd right) poses at the rear of a cargo plane that carried Kaavan at the Siem Reap Airport. AP
Cher had written songs pressing for Kaavan's release from grim, isolated conditions at Islamabad Zoo and she had spent the last few days with him in Pakistan.
The multi award-winning singer has been with a film crew documenting Kaavan's story and said she was proud to be part of an effort to free an elephant she said had been shackled to a shed for 17 years.
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.
Cher holds a vanity car plate while posing for a photograph with Dr Amir Khalil at the Siem Reap Airport. AP
Helpers packed his trunk with 200kilos 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 of urine.
After Kaavan touched down, monks offered him fruit, chanted prayers and sprinkled holy water on his crate to bless him.
A Buddhist monk sprinkles holy water around the crate containing Kaavan his arrival at Siem Reap Airport. AFP
He was then loaded onto a truck for the journey to Oddar Meanchey province where a wildlife sanctuary that houses other elephants will be his new home.
Cher followed behind in her own vehicle as Kaavan made his way through farmland and past the famous Angkor Wat temple.
An aerial view of the under-construction enclosure for Kaavan in Cambodia. AFP
"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.
Years of campaigning
Kaavan's journey 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.
Cher holds a welcoming sign for Kaavan arriving at the Siem Reap International Airport. AP
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 has 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.
"The Islamabad zoo is now completely closed for both public and officials," Saleem Shaikh, a spokesman for Pakistan's ministry of climate change said.
"We have just heard from Pakistan High Court Kaavan is free," the singer and animal rights campaigner tweeted on Thursday in capital letters, adding a string of emojis and saying she felt "sick." "This is one of the greatest moments of my life," she said.
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Samy Al Olabi is Egyptian-Syrian and is currently based in Dubai. Inspired by his love for nature and night skies, he reaches for the stars from the dark corners of Arabia.