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KAAVAN: One year after his epic relocation mission from a zoo in Pakistan to a wildlife sanctuary in Cambodia.

UPDATE - December 1, 2021 / MAGGIE PADLEWSKA

“Happy birthday…be happy now, and forever!” Pedro Vella of the Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary (CWS) reads out loud to Kaavan from a list of messages he printed out on a piece of paper from donors who contributed to the Asian elephant’s celebratory feast. Unlike his usual mid-day feeding spots, often along the secured periphery of his very own 30-acre piece of the jungle, Kaavan scoops up the colourful and intricately arranged rice, veggie and fruit ‘cake’ amidst towering trees, dense foliage and vines in far less time than it took his caretakers to prepare. He looks content, almost giddy and happy on this, the one-year anniversary of his first full day at CWS and his 37th birthday (henceforth celebrated on December 1st given that his exact date of birth remains unknown I’m told).

“He’s thriving, he’s healthy, he roams in the jungle, and he’s happy - just like humans, you can tell” says Vella when asked about Kaavan’s wellbeing and behaviour since his epic relocation mission that gripped global headlines on November 30th last year.

After a long and hard fought battle by countless animal rights activists, defenders and lovers since 2015, the 5-tonne elephant was freed from his tragic 35-year existence at the now-defunct Marghazar Zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan. With mainstream media coverage largely triggered by the involvement of American entertainer, Cher, Kaavan’s amazing rescue story and transfer via Russian cargo plane to Cambodia melted the hearts of people around the globe - at the end of grim year that brought much of the world to a grinding halt.

“People always like a good news story and when the world is in a dark situation as it is now, and was it was then, a good news story gets better and better. And this is not just a story about Kaavan, it’s a story about what we should be doing in the future. So it’s a prelude hopefully to more elephants being rescued and put in the same situation…a jungle enclosure where they’re happy” says Vella. “We proved it can be done so now we have to repeat it worldwide - empty the cages, it’s as simple as that.” Consisting of 32-thousand acres, Vella says CWS can accommodate about 100 more elephants in addition to the three it cares for currently (Kaavan and two female elephants). “But its not cheap” he says referring to the relocation costs and the hefty budgets required to build secure and large enclosures, for bull elephants especially, that can become significant obstacles. Kaavan’s large jungle enclosure, for example, cost nearly 200-thousand dollars to build over a nine-month period. Luckily for him, donations poured in, allowing for the continuation of this feel-good story where today Kaavan roams freely within his own piece of a pristine jungle - still untouched by the rampant devastation of the natural environment and wildlife habitats here in Cambodia, and around the globe.

And just like what drives much of the threats against the world'’s wildlife species and their natural environments, which continues to ravage our planet at an alarming rate, captive animals - are seldom spared.

“[There’s] always greed involved. I mean an elephant without a zoo is an elephant that’s not making money. That’s just one animal but at the end of the line it’s all the same situation, all these exotic animals are the zoos’ money makers and they don’t want to give up their money, they’re a business…so of course they want to keep they’re business running” says Vella.

There’s no doubt that there exist a slew of inhumane reasons and excuses for the delays and unwillingness to provide the world’s caged and imprisoned animals with better lives as the people of Pakistan have agreed to for Kaavan. But that responsibility Vella says ultimately rests with the people.

“People have to talk - with their feet and with their money. If people stop going to these places, then they’ll have no choice. They survive on the income from visitors and if visitors say they’re not going anymore then they’ll have no choice but to give the animals, move the animals or sell the animals to a place where people will go…it’s a slow process but it is happening.”

Kaavan has proven to be one such shinning example - of what can be done when people stand up and unite to defeat a wrong.

“It’s made with love” said Anni, a CWS employee, when I jokingly asked her about whether Kaavan will notice the fine detail she was carefully carving out of a banana to spell out “New Life” on Kaavan’s anniversary/birthday cake.

Having travelled to CWS countless times over the past year to document parts of Kaavan’s new chapter in life here in Cambodia, I can most certainly say that he is loved, respected and deeply cared for while being free to explore and to carve out his own pathways in a world that he was formerly robbed of.

As I watch Kaavan playfully carrying the plank of wood on which his cake was served through his lush jungle, I am reminded that this day is in fact a continuation of them all.

“We’ve been celebrating since he’s been here, so this is just another day for him, a cake for him…we celebrate every day - he’s happy, and that’s worth celebrating.” Vella concludes.


​A BRIEF CLIP : Perdo Vella/ Cambodia Wildlife Sanctuary (01.12.21)


APRIL 23.2021


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