A team of international vets used tranquillisers, flatbreads, and the soothing lyrics of Frank Sinatra and conducted a medical examination of Islamabad zoo’s lone elephant on Friday, ahead of his planned move to Cambodia.
The plight of Kaavan, a 36-year-old Asiatic elephant, has drawn international condemnation and highlighted the woeful state of Islamabad’s zoo. In May, the Islamabad High Court ordered that all animals at the zoo should be moved to sanctuaries.
Following the ruling, Austria-based animal welfare and rescue group Four Paws International were enlisted to help move Kaavan to a sanctuary in Cambodia.
A transport crate will be built and the elephant habituated to it before being flown to a 25,000-acre Cambodian wildlife sanctuary in a “jumbo” jet — probably a giant Antonov An-225 airlift cargo plane.
But first, experts must know how Kaavan has fared since the last examination in 2016, so on Friday they sedated him to get up close.
Armed with a tub filled with bananas and flatbreads, Four Paws veterinarian Amir Khalil coaxed the elephant into an emptied-out concrete bathing pond while head vet Frank Goeritz used a tranquilliser pistol to fire three large darts into the animal.
Unaccustomed to close human contact, the elephant grew a little agitated, prompting Khalil to sing Sinatra’s classic melody My Way, which appeared to calm the pachyderm as he chomped on chapatis.
Once the tranquillisers kicked in, Khalil and Goeritz measured Kaavan’s hefty frame and girth, took blood samples and inserted a microchip in his left shoulder.
“He is in good general condition… but he is totally obese, he weighs way too much and his feet are terrible,” said Goeritz, pointing to the elephant’s cracked and malformed toenails that will need medical attention.
The Islamabad High Court’s consistent scrutiny of the government and wildlife department on the treatment of Kaavan garnered appreciation from across the world, but has also stirred a debate over the treatment of caged animals in zoos.
An online petition garnered over 200,000 signatures after it emerged he was being chained at the Islamabad zoo and suffering from mental illnesses.
On May 22, Chief Justice Athar Minallah ordered wildlife officials to consult with Sri Lanka to find Kaavan a “suitable sanctuary”. He also ordered that the 878 other animals at the Islamabad zoo be relocated.
The federal government then assured the court that it would transfer Kaavan to a sanctuary in Cambodia.
Owais Awan, counsel of the petitioner, told The Third Pole that they were lucky to have a judge like Justice Minallah hearing their case.
“We were lucky to have a judge who was receptive and passionate about the cause of animal welfare,” Awan said.
“My children and even my grandchildren grew up seeing Kaavan and it will be sad to see him off, but we all know he has a beautiful future ahead of him; he will be at peace,” said Islamabad Wildlife Management Board Chairperson Anisur Rahman.
However, Uzma Khan, director of biodiversity at WWF Pakistan, is skeptical. She is also concerned about the transportation process and how it can cause huge stress to the animal.
“Considering the average zoo life expectancy of an Asian elephant, Kaavan has lived most of his life, and efforts should be made to improve his enclosure and provide enrichment so that his quality of life improves,” Khan said.
She was of the opinion that the government should make a strategic decision instead to never get any more elephants at Islamabad’s zoo.
With reporting from AFP.