Kaavan is busy acclimatizing to his new home in the northern province of Oddar Meanchey. The 36-year-old pachyderm is recovering from his flight from Pakistan – not an easy journey for the large mammal – and after the exciting welcome he received in Cambodia on November 30.
The elephant is being encouraged to run around the enclosure at the Kulen Prum Tep Wildlife Sanctuary and was seen playing with a large wheel swing set last week. Kaavan also seemed to prefer bundles of sugarcane to fibrous banana stems.
Darrick Thomson, an elephant trainer and co-founder of Save the Elephant Foundation, said it was encouraging that Kaavan was being receptive to his surroundings and picking up new information.
This was in contrast to his time at the Islamabad Zoo in Pakistan, Thomson said, where he would exhibit only certain behaviors, like rocking back and forth, suggesting mental health issues.
Kaavan was translocated to Cambodia after an international campaign, led by American pop star Cher, to remove Kaavan from his lonely existence at the Islamabad Zoo in Pakistan.
Kaavan was born in Sri Lanka and was gifted to Pakistan in 1985, according to FOUR PAWS International, an animal welfare organization. He spent most of his life chained at the Islamabad Zoo without proper care and socialization, after a female elephant Saheli, who was his only companion for 22 years, died in 2011.
Photos of his isolation were seen by Cher in 2015, who then campaigned to get the elephant translocated. The Islamabad High Court this year ordered that Kaavan be freed, thus starting his journey to Cambodia.
Cher accompanied Kaavan to Phnom Penh last week and then to Oddar Meanchey, where she reported that Kaavan was already making friends.
“Long, but amazing day with Kaavan and the girls. Girls are little nervous, Kaavan happy to be friends,” Cher tweeted on December 2.
The “girls” Cher is referring to are female elephants who have been curious about their new neighbor. Save the Elephant Foundation’s Thomson said he saw Kaavan interacting with the female elephants, even interlocking trunks with one of them.
“The interaction I saw last night, they spent a lot of time together,” said Thomson.
Apart from mingling with the other elephants, Thomson said Kaavan was showing normal behaviors, such as playing with the mud and covering himself in the dirt to protect himself from the sun.
“He’s doing very well. His bowel movements are firm and healthy,” he added.
Kaavan is currently in stage one of his rehabilitation, with FOUR PAWS saying there were two more critical steps. At some point, the pachyderm would move to a larger enclosure, after which he will be allowed to roam the large fenced-off sanctuary and interact with other elephants.
Dr. Amir Khali, FOUR PAWS veterinarian and mission leader, said Cambodia had qualified staff to care for Kaavan, especially the special treatment he needs for his feet.
Neth Pheaktra, a spokesperson at the Ministry of Environment, said there were between 400 and 600 Asian elephants living in the protected forest of Ratanakkiri, Mondulkiri provinces, and in the Cardamom Mountains.
He said there were no reported cases of poaching, and that eight elephants had died in the last decade because of illness or conflict with humans.
"For instance, the elephants roamed around to eat people's crops and they were trapped. Some elephants got stuck in a landslide while they were swimming. Some died of poor health at birth.” Neth Pheaktra said.
Sou Savat, 38, a resident of neighboring Siem Reap province, said relatives working at the airport had informed him of the elephant’s arrival and he felt this would help Cambodia project a more positive image overseas.
“It is good that Kaavan was brought from [Pakistan] to Cambodia. More local people, expats, and foreigners will be interested in visiting the wildlife sanctuary. This means they believe in our country that we don’t abuse animals [elephants] like other countries.”