Kaavan, I Envy You
A year has gone by living in this corona era. These are indeed trying times for the entire humanity and especially the downtrodden i.e. those who, never really get a chance to live in the true sense. In the given backdrop, when one goes through the story of Kaavan, one does experience acute anger, sadness and frustration; but envy as well. Why? That is the reason for this article.
Kaavan was only one when he was “abducted” from a jungle in Sri Lanka and presented as a gift to a dictator in Pakistan in 1985. Since then he was languishing in a squalid jail called “Marghazar Zoo” in Islamabad mostly chained with the chains having caused deep festering sores. The zoo, established in 1978, continued to “live down” to the standards of many other PSEs in Pakistan till 16th December, 2020 when it was closed. It was “upgraded” in 2008 and in 2016 its owners were planning to raise its “standards” further to international levels, when many were crying hoarse about the tragic conditions in the zoo.
Kaavan’s existence became further miserable when his only companion i.e. Saheli, was abducted at the age of 1 and brought to Pakistan in 1990. She died in 2012. She also mostly used to remain chained beside Kaavan. She developed sores due to those chains, which degenerated into gangrene. Her keepers mercilessly continued to use her, for giving rides to the visitors, till she collapsed on 29th April, 2012 and died, indeed very symbolically, on 1st May, 2012.
When she died, her body continued to lie beside Kaavan for days. Instead of helping him to overcome his grief over the loss, his keepers silenced all of his expression of pain by chaining all of his four legs; rendering him totally unable to move.
Saheli was only 22 when she died; though, Asian elephants live up to at least 60. Thus, she died an easily avoidable, unnatural death living in unnatural circumstances. Though media amply covered her death; however, as usual, it went unnoticed by those who were responsible and liable. Although the cause of her death was sheer apathy on the part of her keepers, a rumor was spread that she was poisoned. The management kept on asserting that they were fully taking care of their responsibilities.
A sham inquiry was also conducted and two junior workers were suspended. It was even claimed that she was examined by a doctor a night earlier who found her to be in perfect condition i.e. the death was totally sudden, which was a white lie. Soon after the death, media had started expressing concerns about Kaavan, whom they had now started chaining more firmly to prevent him from expressing his grief. Stories of rampant corruption and underhand selling of zoo animals and their medicines in the black market were also reported in the media. However, they also went unnoticed by the authorities.
In 2015, a zoo visitor noticed Kaavan’s plight and launched a petition for his freedom. Though the petition fell on the proverbial deaf ears, in 2016, voluntary experts came to Islamabad to assess Kaavan’s condition and reported that he is under severe stress because of his horrendous living conditions. They also informed that his habit of obsessively rocking his head and torso, which was being presented as “dancing” to visitors, was actually a sign of acute distress. His pictures in chains later published in the media attracted the attention of the international music diva Cher, who started championing the cause, which triggered another petition for his freedom.
In 1979, the Islamabad Wildlife Management Ordinance was promulgated, which created a Wildlife Board; but, the Board became functional only after an order of the Islamabad High Court in 2015. However; soon thereafter a tiff erupted over who controls the zoo i.e. the Islamabad Metropolitan Corporation or the Board.
Since June 2016, Kaavan gained the attention of the Senate and a Senate Committee advised to send him to a dedicated sanctuary in Cambodia. Renowned senator Mushahid Hussein also came out vocally for Kaavan. There he could live freely, receive medical care and form bonds. However, sheer “red tape” and the resistance of his keepers in accepting their incompetence continued to block his departure. They kept on denying the abysmal conditions at the zoo and their destructive impact upon Kaavan. They rather asserted that the Zoo would soon be world class (Like PIA, PSM, Pakistan Railways, government hospitals and so many other similar “world class” institutions we have established).
Chairman Senate directed the zoo management to arrange a health checkup of Kaavan. Even that was ignored. Cher’s team visited Islamabad and held meetings with the authorities and offered assistance for moving Kavvan out of Pakistan. However, they returned unsuccessful. They also wrote a few letters to the officials, which also failed to generate any action. Therefore, another e-petition was launched; which secured 400,000 signatures.
At this stage, Faryal Gohar, a highly respected artist also threw her weight on the side of Kaavan’s freedom. The more friends Kaavan gained, the more his keepers dug their heels in while denying all reports about his agonizing living conditions and mental anguish. We even suddenly heard about “plans” for improvements. Practically, he was destined to meet the fate of Saheli if he had not such multitude of ardent well-wishers in and outside Pakistan. Many times in their pro-Kaavan protests, they were abused by the zoo staff and banned from entry to the zoo by the management.
The cruel treatment at the Zoo was not only limited to Kaavan. Dozens of birds and animals died due to similar criminal negligence. In July 2017 alone, four lion cubs died due to improper diet.
In 2019, the wildlife management board approached Islamabad High Court on behalf of Kavaan in addition to a few others. A report submitted to the court during the proceedings detailed that Kaavan was living in conditions “inappropriate” to meet his “physiological, social and behavioral needs”. In addition to being in chains, he was in isolation since 2012, his food (mostly sugarcane) was “substandard” and above all his keepers had a “negative relationship” with him.
On 21 May 2020, the court ordered Kaavan’s departure to the Cambodian sanctuary. The court verdict said “Neither there are adequate facilities nor resources to provide living conditions that would meet the behavioral, social, and physiological needs of the animals.”
The court also criticized the zoo management for their incompetence and apathy and ordered closure of the zoo after safe relocation of Kaavan and all other animals held there. Even during relocation, a few animals including two lions further lost their lives due to sheer non-professionalism, while hundreds of animals simply got lost (or sold in the black market?).
An article written in 2020 describes the condition of the zoo as comprising of filthy ponds for ducks, a lioness who used to give birth only to dead cubs, skinny wolves madly running in circles, animals being served food only once a day, rat running around in the birds’ cages, an eagle with a broken wing unable to fly. And of course our Kaava was suffering unabatedly, only one vet, incompetent and uncouth zoo staff, an alienated workers union and a few seniors lamenting about shortage of funds.
Kaavan’s departure could only materialize on 29th November after curing his depression and reducing his weight by balancing his diet etc. Dr. Amir an Egyptian veterinarian was in Pakistan since July, 20 for treating Kaavan’s wounds and preparing him emotionally and physically for the journey. He even used music therapy for the treatment.
Cher, specially flew to Pakistan in November, 20 to ensure that his departure is not delayed further. It was her animal welfare group “Free the Wild” which worked to relocate Kaavan at a cost of $400,000. Kaavan left Pakistan on a Russian Antonov for his new home – a 405,000 hectare protected forest. He is heard to have already found a companion in his new abode.
As to the Islamabad zoo; on 16th December, 2020, after the departure of its last animal to a safe sanctuary it met the fate it was destined to meet due to the decades of gross negligence, corruption, apathy and incompetence of its management it was closed in lieu of the court’s decision.
The entire episode of the zoo amply reflects all the ailments our system is suffering from. The zoo resembles our system in many ways i.e. rotten to the core where even a lioness lost her capacity to produce alive cubs and the eagle to fly. Is it not a fact that just like the zoo, we are living in a system where a number of people are compelled to die miserable deaths like Saheli with no medical facility, where the living conditions of many are inappropriate to meet their physiological and emotional needs, where a large majority is compelled to consume insufficient and substandard diets, where even sheer howls of pain may be considered to be rebellious and where the ruling classes have a negative relationship with those below them, where lying, cheating, and denial of facts with postures of sheer irrational obstinacy are rampant. Like Kaavan, one can be wronged, cheated, abused, blatantly exploited and he can continue to bang his head for justice against the system irrespective of the truthfulness of his cause and magnitude of the highhandedness against him, but the system would still “successfully” defeat him by simply ignoring him, his shrieks of anguish and his appeals for justice.
He will succeed only if he is lucky to gain the sympathy of the likes of Cher and/or a sympathetic judge. And, that is why I envy you Kaavan.