Dr. Amir Khalil isn’t any stranger to serving to animals out of actually dangerous conditions. The 55-year-old Egyptian-born veterinarian, who works with the Vienna-based animal welfare group 4 Paws Worldwide, has been rescuing animals from crumbling zoos and battle zones comparable to Syria and the Gaza Strip for greater than twenty years.
“We go to locations the place the logic would not exist,” Khalil advised NPR final yr. “The federal government would not exist. Nobody cares. And the place nobody will consider you’re coming to save lots of animals.”
Now he can add transferring an elephant by aircraft between international locations throughout a lethal international pandemic to his storied resume. Khalil led the crew that this week transferred a 37-year-old male Asian elephant named Kaavan from confinement in a decrepit zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan, to a conservation park in Cambodia.
Shifting Kaavan was already a tough mission logistically and politically, Khalil says — and the coronavirus pandemic made it much more difficult. The well being and security of the crew was “the primary precedence,” he says, as they labored to shift the 5-ton pachyderm from the ill-equipped Islamabad zoo that is been his house for over 30 years.
Born in Sri Lanka, Kaavan arrived in Pakistan as one-year-old calf, a state present throughout army rule within the Eighties, after the army dictator’s younger daughter expressed a passion for elephants. He ended up within the zoo, the place he spent the following three a long time “chained and mistreated,” Khalil says.
“They compelled him generally to drink whisky and vodka, even in an Islamic nation the place alcohol is forbidden,” he tells NPR.
In 2012, Kaavan’s enclosure mate, a feminine elephant named Saheli, died. Her physique was left mendacity with Kaavan for days earlier than it was taken away. He is been alone ever since — incomes him the nickname of “world’s loneliest elephant.”
When Khalil first met Kaavan in 2016, throughout a go to to evaluate the situation of the zoo and its animals, he says the elephant was aggressive, depressed and overweight.
Not lengthy after Khalil’s go to, American pop legend Cher realized of Kaavan’s scenario. Alongside together with her personal charity, Free the Wild, and different animal rights teams, she launched a marketing campaign to shut the Islamabad zoo and relocate the animals.
A Pakistani court docket lastly ordered the zoo’s closure in Could and put Khalil in control of determining the place and the right way to relocate Kaavan.
“It was an honor,” says Khalil.
He really helpful relocating Kaavan to Cambodia’s Kulen Promenade Tep Wildlife Sanctuary, a facility of over 30,000 acres exterior Siem Reap. “Cambodia was an excellent area the place we might construct the suitable facility for the elephant’s quarantine and rehabilitation,” he says.
The park already has three feminine elephant residents, and they are going to be essential for Kaavan’s rehabilitation and socialization, he says.
Khalil and his crew labored with Pakistani officers, Cambodian officers and, after all, Kaavan himself to arrange the elephant for his unimaginable journey: a greater than 7-hour flight, adopted by an extended drive to the sanctuary. The whole course of value some $400,000, with the flight donated by the Eric S. Margolis Basis.
Social media was abuzz with photos and videos displaying Kaavan taking his very first steps out of the transport crate and into his new house on Monday night time.
Aamir Qureshi/AFP by way of Getty Photos
That second “was nice,” an emotional Khalil says, “as a result of I had a particular contact and particular bond with the elephant.”
Like anybody who strikes to a brand new house, Kaavan is a bit stressed and confused proper now, he says.
“However certainly within the coming days, he’ll really feel significantly better and calmer,” he says.
The elephant shall be slowly launched to the total habitat within the coming weeks.
“The life of 1 human or one elephant is so essential and we hope Kaavan evokes individuals,” Khalil says. “What Kaavan did for animal welfare on a world stage is essential. He deserves to be free — it is all about humanity.”
NPR reached Khalil in Cambodia a day after Kaavan’s switch. Highlights of the interview have been edited and condensed for readability.
On how a Sinatra normal helped transfer Kaavan
So, to maneuver such an enormous, you want a number of logistic work. We needed to begin by transferring him from such a small enclosure in a zoo the place no large vans can enter, we needed to construct a crate, we want a crew to coach the elephant. And we have to discover a correct aircraft, as a result of every other place couldn’t take Kaavan. We needed to take the largest aircraft on earth, an Antonov, however this was very costly.
So we labored on the burden of the elephant and the elephant misplaced some [hundreds of] kilograms and we had been in a position to modify the crate to be smaller. This allowed us to take a Russian airplane, an Ilyushin. It is large as a result of the elephant is large, very tall. We would have liked an airplane with a giant door.
The crew labored very arduous in the previous few months to alter the burden of the elephant, to coach the elephant for the transport field. And someway I discovered a solution to calm the elephant by music. He loves Frank Sinatra music: My Manner. I’ve ugly voice, very dangerous, however I solely have one fan, Kaavan, however that is it for me.
On placing an elephant on a aircraft
You want meals for the elephant within the aircraft. If the elephant strikes one step ahead or again, the pilot is not going to be joyful as a result of the airplane will transfer. We had been supported by the [Pakistani] military, logistics to maneuver and provide the crane which is able to carry the elephant and the transport field collectively. We had a army escort to the airport by the military as a result of if there was an accident, it could be a catastrophe.
We succeeded in bringing him into the aircraft and he was calm. We needed to feed him every now and then, I needed to sing to him. He slept a bit of, nevertheless it was for him a number of pleasure.
On the politics of transferring Kaavan
So it was a giant political drawback [in Pakistan] to lose the elephant, to present away the elephant as a result of they don’t seem to be in a position to take care of the elephant. However however, all the animal lovers agree there was no certified employees to take care of the elephant. They even really helpful constructing a sanctuary for the elephant in Pakistan. However to maintain one Asian elephant in Pakistan, in a giant sanctuary, it is like you’ve got a giant island for you alone. It is stunning, however you will be alone.
The elephant was a presidential present when he was a child. So the president of Pakistan and the primary woman got here to say “goodbye” and “protected journey” to Kaavan. They’ve handy over the presidential present as a result of he needed to be retired.
By this week, it was politically potential to say that Pakistan wouldn’t lose face. The elephant labored over 35 years, filed for retirement and this was nice.
On Kaavan’s new life
After we arrived, Cher was ready for him, and a number of journalists. Monks got here to bless him. After this, he moved to the sanctuary. He is in a brand new enclosure the place he’ll keep for some time and he has three [elephant] girls as neighbors. And [Tuesday] morning, it was the primary time his trunk touched one other trunk from one of many girls. Which was touching.
I’ll keep one week with Kaavan after which fly again to rescue two bears from Islamabad to Jordan. I am positive I’ll come again to go to Kaavan quickly. I’m joyful for Kaavan. Now he shall be a happier elephant, and I shall be a rescue physician once more.