Islamabad's lonely elephant Kaavan suffering 'mental illness'

Published: July 7, 2016
Kaavan's behaviour -- including signs of distress such as bobbing his head repeatedly -- demonstrates "a kind of mental illness", said Safwan Shahab Ahmad, the vice chairman of Pakistan Wildlife Foundation.

Kaavan's behaviour -- including signs of distress such as bobbing his head repeatedly -- demonstrates "a kind of mental illness", said Safwan Shahab Ahmad, the vice chairman of Pakistan Wildlife Foundation. PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s lonely elephant Kaavan has become the subject of a high-profile rights campaign backed by music icon Cher, but efforts to improve the pachyderm’s lot appear limited.

The 32-year-old Asian elephant is suffering from “mental illness”, and without a better habitat his future is bleak even if a long-promised new mate finally arrives, experts told AFP.

Kaavan: In chains, he weeps

Outrage over Kaavan’s treatment went global — with a petition garnering over 200,000 signatures — after it emerged he was being chained at the Islamabad Zoo in Pakistan’s leafy capital.


Zoo officials have said this is no longer the case, and that Kaavan just needs a new mate after his previous partner died in 2012.

But his behaviour — including signs of distress such as bobbing his head repeatedly — demonstrates “a kind of mental illness”, said Safwan Shahab Ahmad, the vice chairman of Pakistan Wildlife Foundation.

Ahmad, who has conducted detailed research on Kaavan since the 1990s, also slammed the lack of trained experts to care for the elephant, saying he needs more space and a pen better adapted to his natural forest habitat.

Activists say he has insufficient shelter from Islamabad’s searing summer temperatures, which can rise to above 40 degrees Celsius (100 Fahrenheit).

The haunting story of Kaavan

Asian elephants can roam thousands of kilometres through deep tropical and subtropical forests, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

In contrast, Kaavan’s 90 by 140 metre (100 by 150 yard) pen has almost no foliage, and only limited shade is provided.


“Give Kaavan deep bushes and artificial showering and you will see him enjoying the environment,” said Ahmad, who has written several research papers on the elephant.

Ahmad was backed by mammalogy expert Dr Wasim Ahmad Khan, who said captivity “will shorten his life if we don’t take care of his environment”.

Arriving as a one-year-old in 1985 from Sri Lanka, Kaavan was temporarily held in chains in 2002 because zookeepers were concerned about increasingly violent tendencies, but he was freed later that year after an outcry.

His mate Saheli, who arrived also from Sri Lanka in 1990, died in 2012, and last year it emerged that Kaavan was regularly being chained once more — for several hours a day.

Scores of people signed a petition sent to zoo authorities and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in protest, and the zoo told AFP during a visit earlier this month that the elephant is no longer being restrained.


A second petition circulated earlier this year and backed by over 200,000 animal-lovers from across the globe, demanded Kaavan’s release to a sanctuary.

World leaders urged to join campaign to free Kaavan

Cher, who for months has been speaking out about Kaavan’s plight, tweeted a series of images on June 29 showing Kaavan standing by an artificial pond, part of a new moat encircling his enclosure.


But the zoo, run by the Capital Development Authority (CDA), hit back at the accusations, saying Kaavan was just lonely and in need of a new mate.

“It was in November last year that we unchained Kaavan after allocating a much bigger space for him in the zoo and developing necessary infrastructure for his free movements,” the CDA’s deputy director general Iftikhar Awan, who is responsible for the zoo, told AFP.

The zoo is in negotiations with Sri Lanka over a new mate for Kaavan, he added, though he could not give a timeline.

Pakistani media have also upped the pressure on zoo authorities after an ostrich died there in May.

“We are waiting for a report that will disclose the reasons for ostrich’s death,” the zoo’s deputy director Dr Muhammad Bilal told AFP.

Kaavan’s keeper maintains that the pachyderm is not being mistreated — but just longs for company.

“Bring a female elephant and you will see very positive changes in Kaavan,” keeper Jalal-ud-din Ahmad told AFP.

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Reader Comments (11)

  • Imran Ahmed
    Jul 7, 2016 - 10:31AM

    Elephants are an intelligent, self-aware species. To treat them with such insensitivity is unacceptable. The zoo staff where he is kept should be re-trained to be kind to others, that is, if their intellectual capacity approaches that of Kaavan and they have the ability to be re-trained. Otherwise, fire them and hire competent staff.Recommend

  • No
    Jul 7, 2016 - 2:12PM

    Please don’t get a new elephant when there isn’t even space and facilities for just one, and we know there are issues within the staff/keepers.

    Send him back to Sri Lanka instead of getting one more to be miserable here.

    The whole zoo is incredibly depressing. There’s really no need for zoos and keeping animals in captivity in this day and age. Get fibre glass replicas like the dinosaurs (that was a good idea) that kids can play around and install open air cinemas/projector screens that play nature documentaries. Recommend

  • Haji Atiya
    Jul 7, 2016 - 4:24PM

    …he’s not alone, and that’s just the Capitol…Recommend

  • Jul 7, 2016 - 6:04PM

    Why don’t they free him and close that zoo cricus in which they make poor animals prisoners for their personal pleasure, if tomorrow suppose animals do the same to humans how will you going to feel?Recommend

  • Brainy Bhaijan
    Jul 7, 2016 - 11:49PM

    Just free him. Cher would be more than happy to pay for the international airfare and arrange for his better habitat.Recommend

  • Saeed Masood
    Jul 8, 2016 - 12:34AM

    Just like Dr. Asim…Right…???Recommend

  • Jul 8, 2016 - 4:42AM

    Sure, anybody in Islamabad is suffering from Menta Illness.Recommend

  • Jul 8, 2016 - 9:09AM

    Give the pachyderm a jungle enclosure having tropical conditions and see the difference. An area of 140 by 90 meters without a mate is no area at all, plus chaining. He needs to move about comfortably. Nevertheless, he should be released back into the tropical forests of SriLanka as he has entertained the Pakistanis more than he should have. Salams Recommend

  • Carey Ostrer
    Jul 8, 2016 - 9:17AM

    Kaavan shows all the classic signs of mental distress because CDA_Islamabad have failed in their duty of care. There is much filmed evidence of his repetitive head swaying from yrs back. Others have written about it in 2011 even when poor Saheli was with him. He has spent long periods of his life chained 2/74, after much public objection CDA ordered him unchained between 9am-4pm, he was chained 17/24. Then during his Musth period he was re-chained 24/7, again public outcry, eventually he was back to 17/24. Only since May 2016 has he been chain free – as far as we can tell. Kaavan is essentially, genetically and behaviourally a wild bull elephant and he will always be – or try to be. He needs rehabilitation and expert care at a recognised sanctuary. Unfortunately there is not one in Pakistan, though Pakistan should have one, the other zoo elephants need it too. Bringing a strange female elephant to be put with a bull elephant in the same enclosure with no barrier is against ALL international guidelines for elephant management, and could be extremely dangerous for the female. If Kaavan then causes “trouble” he will simply be chained again, 24/7 – as they did before.Recommend

  • Carey
    Jul 8, 2016 - 10:29AM

    Kaavan’s mental distress will not be “cured” by a female companion. He was showing all these signals when his last companion Saheli was alive. Filmed evidence and written accounts show this. Kaavan’s mental distress is due to his life story. He was captured, probably from the wild and separated from his mother and herd when he was just 1-2 yrs old, he had not even been weaned at that age. To add to his trauma he was then placed on his own in captivity until a few yrs later a young female was put with him. His additional distress has to be laid squarely at the doors of CDA_Islamabad who have failed in their duty of care and ordered him chained for much of his life, sometimes by all 4 feet 24/7. After public outcry he was temporarily released from his chains in the latter part of 2015. Then he entered his Musth period and he was chained again, 24/7. Public outcry ensued again, and in around March CDA ordered him chain-free between 9am-4pm. His Mahawats did not immediately comply and neither the Zoo Director nor CDA enforced it. Again public outcry. He was only ordered to be chain free after considerable campaigning within Pakistan and around the world around 27 March, seen and filmed chain free. As far as his advocates know, he’s been chain free for the last 3 months. Kaavan is genetically and behaviourally a wild bull elephant and will always be – or try to be. In the wild he would have when he had left his maternal herd joined a bachelor group of young bulls, and as he matured he would have probably mated with several females, elephants do not stay with one mate all their lives. A strange female being put with Kaavan would be against all international guidelines for very good reasons, bulls are unpredictable and possibly dangerous. The female could be damaged. And one thing is for sure, if Kaavan is seen to be causing trouble he will simply be chained again 24/7. Bearing all this in mind expert care in a recognised monitored sanctuary is the best possible option for Kaavan.Recommend

  • zala
    Jul 9, 2016 - 4:31PM

    Release him from Jail Immediately. He has not committed any crimes fit his incarceration! Set him FREE!!!Recommend

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