Cher’s four-year journey to help save an abused elephant from a Pakistani zoo is documented in “Cher & The Loneliest Elephant” now on Paramount+ and premiering May 19 on Smithsonian Channel.
The special follows the iconic singer/actress’ efforts to rescue Kaavan, a 37-year-old elephant kept chained to a wall, alone, in an Islamabad zoo in squalid conditions. His mate, Saheli, died in 2012 from gangrene caused by the chains on her legs, causing Kaavan to rock back and forth from stress and anxiety.
Kaavan’s plight was brought to Cher’s attention in 2016 through the efforts of animal rights advocate Anika Sleem, who launched a #FreeKaavan social media campaign that quickly gained traction.
“My first thought was, ‘I’m not going to be able to do anything [to help Kaavan]; I’m just an entertainer and he’s in Islamabad and there’s pandemic.’ I felt hopeless, but then I remembered a friend I met in Qatar, [musician/activist] Bob Geldof’s manager, Mark Cowne, and just cold-called him.”
“I said something really stupid like, ‘You might not remember me but we rode in a car together and I know you’ve saved elephants in Africa. Can you help me?’ I want to save an elephant in Pakistan.’
Cowne contacted animal rights group Four Paws International. Led by experienced veterinarian Dr. Amir Khalil, they were tasked with transporting Kaavan from Islamabad to a 30,000-acre animal sanctuary in Cambodia.
It was risky, since Kaavan was in Musth, a periodic condition in which male elephants’ testosterone rises dramatically, causing aggressive behavior. It also necessitated a specially constructed container Kaavan had to be trained to enter so he could make the seven-hour air journey to Cambodia.
Cher, meanwhile, flew with a small security detail to meet Kaavan in Islamabad, then journeyed on to Cambodia to welcome him at the sanctuary. Kaavan’s trip to Cambodia was uneventful, and he will now transition (in three stages) into living in his natural habitat, roaming free and surrounded by other elephants.