How Cher Helped Free the ‘World’s Loneliest Elephant’

Image of pop singer Cher, who helped to free the "world's loneliest elephant."

Last year, Cher helped to free Kaavan, a 35-year-old Asian elephant from Sri Lanka known as the “world’s loneliest elephant.”

He safely arrived at the Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary in December 2020, and is transitioning to a life of freedom there. Since his rescue, Cher has kept the public updated on Kaavan’s progress, and their story was featured in the Smithsonian Channel and Paramount+ documentary Cher & the Loneliest Elephant (2021).

Speaking to USA Today in April of this year, Cher revealed that on her first meeting with Kaavan she fed him watermelon and sang a “really bad” rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Today, Kaavan is settled on the sanctuary’s 25,000-acres alongside other elephants.

“Animals deserve to be taken care of,” Cher told USA Today. “I would like for people to look at their pets and then see the horrible conditions these animals have been kept in, and just ask themselves, ‘Would I ever let [someone] do this to my pet?'”

How Cher Helped Free the 'World's Loneliest Elephant'
Kaavan now resides at the Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary. | Smithsonian Channel

The world’s loneliest elephant

Kaavan first arrived at Murghazar Zoo in Pakistan when he was just one year of age. Cher campaigned for Kaavan’s release for over four years, after seeing pictures of the elephant wrapped in chains and living alone. Reports stated that Kavaan suffered from dehydration and hunger. 

He also became increasingly distressed after his mate Saheli died in 2012. No other elephant companion was brought in for him after their death.

In May of 2020, the singer took to express her excitement at the release of Kavaan from the Islamabad Zoo. The Pakistani court had ordered the release of the “world’s loneliest elephant” following a high-profile campaign that Cher helped lead.

“We have just heard from Pakistan High Court Kaavan is free,” Cher tweeted at the time. In a separate tweet, she wrote: “This is one of the greatest moments of my life. Can’t stop [crying] … Kaavan is free. [Crying] down my cheeks, but he’s free.”

Kaavan’s release

Later that same month, the Islamabad high court said wildlife officials must retire the elephant to a permanent home in a sanctuary within 30 days.

Kevin Schneider, executive director for the Nonhuman Rights Project, welcomed the news.“[Islamabad’s] careful consideration of nonhuman animal rights alongside human rights and environmental protection is the only fitting judicial response to the existential crises faced by animals all over the world,” he said.

He added: “The bold step forward he has taken on behalf of oppressed nonhuman beings like Kaavan is laudable, as is the persistence of Kaavan’s advocates who’ve fought so tirelessly for him.”

Cher met with Prime Minister Imran Kahn on November 27, 2020 to thank Pakistan’s government for helping to free Kaavan. “Just came from meeting to thank Prime Minister Imran Kahn for making it possible for me to take Kaavan to Cambodia,” the singer tweeted.

Animal’s in captivity

Kaavan isn’t the only elephant to suffer in captivity

Activists and organizations like the Nonhuman Rights Project have campaigned for the release of Happy, an elephant being held in the Bronx zoo. A Bronx County Supreme Court judge dismissed a petition filed by the animal rights group last year. The petition claimed the zoo was “unlawfully” imprisoning her. Happy has resided at the zoo for 42 years. And for the last decade, the zoo has isolated her in a one-acre enclosure away from other elephants.

Organizations have launched similar campaigns to free Billy the elephant from the Los Angeles Zoo, where he has resided for more than three decades. Cher herself is working hard to free another Asian elephant, Lucy, who has lived in Canada for 45 years and been without a companion since 2006.

In the wild, elephants form intricate social relationships with other elephants. They also have extended family units and are able to roam vast expanses of land. In captivity, elephants’ basic, complex physical, social, and psychological needs are more difficult to meet. The same goes for all other wild animals held in captivity.

Zoos and other attractions routinely force captive elephants and other animals to live in cramped enclosures. These typically feature concrete floors. These unnatural and uncomfortable living arrangements can cause health problems like foot disease and arthritis, according to the National Geographic.

Animals held in captivity, including elephants, also tend to exhibit abnormal repetitive behaviors. Known as zoochosis, these behaviors include head bobbing, swaying, pacing, circling, and even self-harm.