Anjum Naveed / NPR
Dr. Amir Khalil is no stranger to helping animals from really bad situations. The 55-year-old Egyptian-born veterinarian, who works with Vienna-based animal protection group Four Paws International, has been rescuing animals from crumbling zoos and conflict zones such as Syria and the Gaza Strip for more than two decades.
“We are going to places where logic does not exist,” Khalil told NPR last year. “The government doesn’t exist. Nobody cares. And where no one will believe you’re coming to save animals.”
He can now add moving an elephant by plane between countries during a deadly global pandemic to his floor summary. Khalil led the team that this week transferred a 37-year-old male Asian elephant named Kaavan from a prison to an abandoned zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan, to a protected park in Cambodia.
The relocation of Kaavan has already been a difficult logistical and political mission, says Khalil – and the coronavirus pandemic has made it even more challenging. The team’s health and safety have been a “top priority,” he says, as they have worked to move the 5-ton pachyderm from the poorly equipped zoo in Islamabad, which has been his home for more than 30 years.
Anjum Naveed / AP
Born in Sri Lanka, Kaavan arrived in Pakistan as a one-year-old calf, a state gift during military rule in the 1980s, after the young dictator’s young daughter expressed love for elephants. He found himself at the zoo, where he spent the next three decades “chained and abused,” says Khalil.
“He was sometimes forced to drink whiskey and vodka, even in an Islamic country where alcohol is banned,” he told NPR.
In 2012, the wife of Kaavan’s enclosure, a female elephant named Saheli, died. Her body was left lying with Kaavan for days before being taken away. He has been alone ever since, earning him the nickname “the loneliest elephant in the world.”
When Khalil first met Kaavan in 2016, during a visit to assess the condition of the zoo and its animals, he said the elephant was aggressive, depressed and obese.
Not long after Khalil’s visit, American pop legend Cher learned of Kaavan’s situation. Together with her own charity, Release the Wild, and other animal rights groups, she launched a campaign to close the Islamabad Zoo and relocate the animals.
A Pakistani court finally ordered the zoo closed in May and ordered Khalil to determine where and how to move Kaavan.
“It was an honor,” says Khalil.
He recommended moving Kaavan to the Kulen Prom Tep wildlife reserve in Cambodia, a 30,000-acre facility outside Siem Reap. “Cambodia was a very good space where we could build the right elephant quarantine and rehabilitation facility,” he said.
The park already has three elephant residents and they will be important for Kaavan’s rehabilitation and socialization, he said.
Khalil and his team worked with Pakistani officials, Cambodian officials and, of course, Kaavan himself to prepare the elephant for his incredible journey: a more than 7-hour flight, followed by a long journey to the shrine. The whole process costs about $ 400,000, and the flight was donated by the Eric S. Margolis Foundation.
Social media was full of photos and videos showing Kaavan taking his first steps out of the transport crate and entering his new home on Monday night.
Aamir Qureshi / AFP via Getty Images
This moment “was great,” says the emotional Khalil, “because I had a special contact and a special connection with the elephant.”
Like anyone moving to a new home, Kaavan is a little restless and stressed right now, he says.
“But he will certainly feel much better and calmer in the coming days,” he said.
The elephant will be slowly introduced into full habitat in the coming weeks.
“The life of a man or an elephant is so important, and we hope that Kaavan inspires people,” says Khalil. “What Kaavan has done for animal welfare on a global scale is important. He deserves to be free – it’s all about humanity.”
The NPR reached Khalil in Cambodia the day after Kaavan’s transfer. The highlights of the interview have been edited and shortened for clarity.
About how the Sinatra standard helped move the formula
Anjum Naveed / AP
So to move such a giant, you need a lot of logistical work. We had to start by moving it from such a small enclosure to a zoo, where big trucks can’t enter, we had to build a crate, we need a team to train the elephant. And we have to find a suitable plane, because any other place could not take Kaavan. We wanted to take the biggest plane on earth, Antonov, but it was very expensive.
So we worked on the weight of the elephant and the elephant lost a little [hundreds of] kilograms and we managed to modify the crate to make it smaller. That allowed us to take a Russian plane, Ilyushin. This is huge because the elephant is big, very tall. We needed a plane with a big door.
The team has been working very hard over the last few months to change the elephant’s weight to train the elephant for the transport box. And somehow I found a way to calm the elephant with music. He loves the music of Frank Sinatra: My way. I have an ugly voice, very bad, but I only have one fan, Kaavan, but that’s for me.
Putting an elephant on a plane
Saina Bashir / Reuters
You need food for the elephant on the plane. If the elephant moves one step forward or backward, the pilot will not be happy because the plane will move. We were supported by [Pakistani] army, logistics to move and supply the crane that will carry the elephant and the transport box together. We had a military escort to the airport from the army, because if there was an accident, it would be a disaster.
We managed to get him on the plane and he was calm. We had to feed him from time to time, I had to sing to him. He slept little, but it was a great excitement for him.
On the policy of relocating Kaavan
So this was a big political problem [in Pakistan] to lose the elephant, to give it away because they are unable to take care of the elephant. But on the other hand, all animal lovers agree that there were no qualified staff to take care of the elephant. They even recommended the construction of an elephant sanctuary in Pakistan. But to keep an Asian elephant in Pakistan in a big sanctuary is like having a big island all to yourself. It’s beautiful, but you will be left alone.
The elephant was a presidential gift when he was a baby. So the President of Pakistan and the First Lady came to say “goodbye” and “safe travel” to Kaavan. They had to give the presidential gift because it had to be retired.
Until this week, it was politically possible to say that Pakistan would not lose face. The elephant worked for over 35 years, applied for a pension and that was great.
For the new life of Formula
When we arrived, Cher was waiting for a lot of journalists. The monks came to bless him. He then moved to the sanctuary. He is in a new enclosure, where he will stay for a while and has three [elephant] ladies as neighbors. And [Tuesday] in the morning, for the first time, his trunk touched another trunk from one of the ladies. Which was touching.
I will stay with Kaavan for a week and then fly back to save two bears from Islamabad to Jordan. I am sure I will return to visit Kaavan soon. I’m happy for Kaavan. Now he will be a happier elephant, and I will be a rescue doctor again.