ISLAMABAD (AP) — Iconic singer and actress Cher is in Pakistan to celebrate the departure of Kaavan, dubbed the "world's loneliest elephant," who will soon leave a Pakistani zoo for better conditions after years of lobbying by animal rights groups and activists.
Because of security concerns, Cher's schedule was not made public. However, she met Friday with Prime Minister Imran Khan and was expected to visit Kaavan later in the trip, according to the prime minister's office. Khan's office released a video of the singer sitting with the prime minister outside on the expansive grounds of Khan's residence.
Kaavan, the elephant has languished in the zoo for 35 years, and lost his partner in 2012. He was diagnosed by veterinarians as both overweight and malnourished, and also suffers behavioral issues due to his isolation.
Kaavan is set to leave for a sanctuary in Cambodia on Sunday, said Martin Bauer of Four Paws International, a global animal welfare group that's led the charge to save him since 2016.
Cher took up Kaavan's cause and has been a loud voice advocating for his resettlement. Four Paws, which often carries out animal rescue missions, has provided the medical treatment needed before Kaavan can travel and will accompany him to the sanctuary.
Even after he's in Cambodia, he'll require years of physical and even psychological assistance, Bauer said.
Because of the abysmal living conditions blamed on systemic negligence, Pakistan's high court in May ordered the closure of Marghazar Zoo in the capital of Islamabad, where Kaavan has lived for much of his life.
A medical examination in September showed Kaavan's nails were cracked and overgrown — the result of years of living in an improper enclosure with flooring that damaged his feet.
The elephant has also developed stereotypical behavior, shaking his head back and forth for hours, which the medical team of wildlife veterinarians and experts blamed on his utter boredom.
For the past three months, a Four Paws team including veterinarian Dr. Amil Khalil and the Islamabad Wildlife Management Board has been readying Kaavan to leave.
Khalil first met Kaavan in 2016, and returned to the zoo in August, where he was heartbroken at the animal's condition. Khalil has spent the last three months trying to get him ready for his trip to Cambodia.
Kaavan was put on a diet of fruit and vegetables, and as a result has lost half a ton, he said. Previously, Kaavan was eating 550 pounds of pure sugar cane every day, with an occasional fruit and vegetable.
The veterinarian said this was the first time in 30 years that he developed an strong emotional bond with a rescue animal. Now, the "world's loneliest elephant" comes lumbering over when he hears Khalil's voice.
"I was always moving, so never allowed myself to develop an emotional attachment," but with Kaavan he couldn't resist, Khalil said. He said he has pampered and protected him for the past three months, cajoling him into losing weight as well as being less fidgety and more relaxed so he can make the trip to Cambodia.
Khalil said there are many elephants at the sanctuary, but in particular three female elephants are awaiting Kaavan's arrival.
Khalil joked that Kaavan might just find a girlfriend there — who knows?
Bauer lauded the powerful impact celebrity voices can have for animal rights.
"Celebrities lending their voices to good causes are always welcomed, as they help starting public discourse and raising pressure on responsible authorities," he said.
"Around the globe there are animal lovers, famous and not famous, and the support of every single one of them is crucial," he added.
By KATHY GANNON Associated Press
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