In 2011, citizens of Pakistan and the media tried to bring attention to the conditions of the animals and the dangerous standards of care at Islamabad Zoo.
A year later, in 2012, the female elephant Saheli - Kaavan's only companion - died due to wounds on her legs that became infected. If treated properly and promptly by a qualified vet or competent mahout, she could have been saved. There are video recording showing Kaavan, chained beside her, caressing her with his trunk and rocking severely when she collapsed. From reports and video footage, we know that locals in Islamabad were very upset, and the media covered both her death and the general conditions in the zoo which regularly experienced an abnormally high number of animal deaths and illnesses.
Conditions remained unchanged for another three years, until 2015, when a visitor to the zoo saw Kaavan’s despicable condition. Their insight prompted a national and international campaign, petitioning for the Capital Development Authority Islamabad (CDA) to release Kaavan to a sanctuary. This petition gathered 404,978 signatures. This campaign reached local stakeholders, including the zoo management, WWF Pakistan, The Pakistan Wildlife Foundation, Pakistan Animal Welfare, relevant officials in the CDA, and eventually President Sharif, all of whom were politely written to. Unfortunately however, the CDA elected to ignore any requests for Kaavan's welfare. In response to the frustration of Animal Welfare's pleas falling on deaf ears, contact was made with overseas embassies and high profile international opinion makers and celebrities to ask for their assistance.
Children, young people and other concerned citizens protested outside the zoo but moreover, protests took place around the world including Canada, the USA, Netherlands, UK and New Zealand. In response, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sent his daughter to inspect the zoo and Kaavan's condition, following which they released a public statement requesting that Kaavan be treated according to "international standards". CDA Islamabad then publicly announced that they would transfer Kaavan to a sanctuary but then withdrew their statement.
Continuous public appeals resulted in Kaavan being released from his chains for the first time in many years, but by the winter of 2015 he was chained again.
In June of 2016, Academy Award winning actress, singer, and animal welfare advocate, Cher becamee aware of Kaavan's situation. Tied down with her looming world tour, Cher sent her business partner and co-founder, Mark Cowne, together with British Pakistani singer, Hussain Manaweer to Islamabad. Together with Mark Cowne, Cher pleaded with Islamabad officials to allow her to raise funds for Kaavan’s transfer to a sanctuary. CDA officials made no effort to follow up on her request, which still stands to this day.
Following Cher's involvement and Mark’s visit to the zoo, international media increased reports on Kaavan's story, forcing Chairman of the Senate, Senator Rabbani to summon the CDA to the Senate to question the reports of Kaavan's "terrible" condition. The senator then ordered an in-house report into Islamabad Zoo, following which the Senate Standing Committee for Cabinet Secretariat made the recommendation to CDA Islamabad, that transferring Kaavan to a sanctuary would be "the right thing to do".
With no response from the CDA for over a month, the Senate Standing Committee sent a second order to the CDA to sign off on Kaavan’s transfer - but again, this was ignored.
A few months later, animal activists continued to draw attention to Kaavan from within Pakistan, releasing distressing video footage of Kaavan standing in filthy water, masking the chain around his feet. These supporters were then verbally abused and physically assaulted by mahouts in Islamabad Zoo, who felt angry about the video being released. These activists were then barred from the zoo by management. Outraged supporters from around the world then took to social media, calling for mahout Bilal to be removed from his position. Media focused on Bilal's historical duplicity, including fraud, animal cruelty and years of mistreatment, where Kaavan was believed to have been used as a lucrative business for Bilal.
In November of the same year, Senator Mashadi sent the following tweet to @CareyOstrer @anikasleem: “I raised KAAVAN issue in Senate today. Demanded his immediate repatriation to sanctuary & compliance of senate Fed minister Dr Tariq directed to give complete report to Senate in 2 days.”
A month later, IMC/CDA allowed Dr. Amir Khalil, an experienced veterinarian and head of project development at Four Paws International, and Dr. Frank Göritz, Head Veterinarian at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research to observe and report on Kaavan, along with the other animals at the zoo. Dr Khalil released the report to the CDA, stating that a full medical check of Kaavan was not possible due to his enclosure being unsafe. Management have so far done nothing to remedy this.
Throughout 2017, multiple media platforms in Pakistan and internationally, continued reporting that Islamabad Zoo was “a picture of neglect”.
The report by Four Paws International was submitted to the CDA in January, regarding Kaavan specifically. The report recommended that an improved security barrier be built between the public and Kaavan, and for a safety fence to be installed inside his enclosure to allow for proper medical examinations and treatment. Four Paws also offered free training to Islamabad Zoo staff, to train Kaavan through "positive reinforcement" so that he would present himself for examinations and treatments. The CDA did not respond, and took none of Four Paws' recommendations on board. At this time, a sanctuary was being developed in Myanmar for some 2000 ex-working elephants, in which Kaavan was said to have a place.
On hearing that Myanmar would not be taking Kaavan any longer, Free The Wild sent a trustee to Cambodia to meet with Lek Chailert's sanctuary management, inspect the sanctuary and ensure that Kaavan would have a home.
In March, Senator Mushahid sent the following email to Team Kaavan:"Thank you Team Kaavan for pulling off an amazing initiative after a relentless struggle! Congratulations! We in the Senate of Pakistan remain committed to protecting Kaavan and now that you have managed to tape up everything, hopefully, we'll all be able to cut through the bureaucratic red-tape to liberate Kaavan by transporting him to the Cambodian sanctuary! As always, we remain ready to help out in any way possible. Well done & Warm regards. Senator Mushahid Hussain"
Three months later, Senator Rabbani directed the CDA to take urgent steps to improve facilities for the animals at Islamabad Zoo and recommended that a wider medical board be assigned to thoroughly assess the physical and mental health of the "lonely" animal. In the same recommendation, the CDA was also directed to improve Kaavan's enclosure, provide healthy food and a better environment.
With no apparent changes having been made, Mark Cowne revisits Islamabad in September for a meeting with Mayor Aziz, Senator Sadiq and several senior CDA officials. Meetings were held with the media and a number of respected persons in Pakistan, where Mark then re-stated Cher's previous offer of raising funds to have Kaavan released.
In February of 2018, Free The Wild made a formal offer to the zoo in writing, via a letter to Mayor Aziz from Cher, inviting him to the USA to discuss the offer.
Two months later, Cher wrote to former Prime Minister Abbasi to discuss Kaavan at Islamabad zoo and explain that an offer had been submitted and that Free The Wild were in communication with another member of Pakistani Government, Dr. Musadik Malik.
With no response from Mayor Aziz since her last letter, Cher wrote again in June to invited Mayor Aziz once more to be her guest, this time in London, UK to sign the offer.
Since then, Mayor Aziz was removed from his post as Chairman of CDA due to alleged conflict of his being both Mayor, head of the IMC and Chair of CDA.
Towards the end of the year, Team Kaavan and Free The Wild trustees arranged a meeting in Pakistan and discussed the existing offer with Ministers of the new government and held a press conference with the Director of the zoo - all of which seemed to amount to nothing so far.
Having covered over 5 years' worth of activity surrounding Kaavan in this blog, we will release another blog next week with the details of what's been happening since the new Pakistan government stepped in.
We aren't alone in this fight and while there are many, many people involved in trying to free Kaavan, Free The Wild still needs your support - please consider a small donation to help us pay for Kaavan's transportation, medical examinations, treatments and veterinary care pre, post and during his journey.
Please keep you eyes peeled for next week's blog and thank you for continuing to support Kaavan's cause and the people behind it.
Free The Wild