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Helping Kaavan retire


August 13, 2016

It is about time Kaavan retired from his service at the Islamabad Zoo and was transferred to a sanctuary. Four Paws International, an animal welfare organisation, has agreed to cover all expenses regarding Kaavan’s transfer to a sanctuary established by it in Myanmar (Burma).

The Elephant Sanctuary and Elephant Rehabilitation Centre has a herd of rescued elephants and is set in 800 acres in a Burmese forest.

Elephants have evolved over millennia and their physical, physiological and behavioural traits have developed in order to optimise their chances of survival in their natural environment.

As one of the most intelligent mammals on the planet, elephants have immensely complex needs that no zoo, no matter how developed, can provide. Life in captivity is equivalent to torture for this complex species, which needs tight social bonds and has strong migratory instincts.

Elephants in the wild live in large family units, sometimes as many as 100 members, and can walk up to 50 miles a day.

Zoo enclosures for elephants are typically 60 to 100 times smaller than the smallest wild territories. In captivity, elephants are also at risk from infanticide, tuberculosis, herpes and lameness. Constant exercise is crucial to the health of these animals, as their massive body weight puts enormous pressure on their joints and bones.

The problem with placing an elephant in a captive environment is that these environments are incapable of satisfying their developed natural needs. When these needs are not satisfied, there is a resulting deterioration in both physical and mental health such as the development of abnormal behaviour, disease and even early mortality.

Historically elephants do not do well in zoo environments: for every elephant born in a zoo, on average another two die. An example of this early mortality seen in elephants of captive environments can be the case of Saheli, Islamabad Zoo’s previous elephant who died at a mere 22 years of age.

And Saheli is not an uncommon case. In a study of 321 elephant deaths, half were by age 23, more than a quarter of a century before their expected life spans of 50 to 60 years.

One of the main issues with Kaavan is his severely deteriorating mental condition. Kaavan continuously exhibits all the typical abnormal behaviours developed by elephants in direct response to stress, desolation, and frustration.

This behaviour includes rhythmic rocking, swaying and swinging of the trunk, head-bobbing, and stepping back and forth. This compulsive, repetitive behaviour causes debilitating, life-threatening damage to the animals’ feet and joints. This is because these movements place an inordinate amount of stress on their joints. Foot or leg injuries can be fatal for an elephant because if and when they collapse and cannot get up, the weight of their body can crush their internal organs.

The leading cause of death in captivity for elephants is foot-related issues, which are often caused by the kind of behaviour Kaavan is exhibiting. In wildlife sanctuaries, where the elephant’s natural needs are met, such behaviour often resolves itself through environmental enrichment stimulation and rehabilitation.

Another issue seen in Kaavan’s case is his aggression. It is clear that Kaavan suffers from a large amount of stress as manifested by his continuous rocking. Elephants showing this abnormal behaviour are more likely to be aggressive and destructive, especially during Musth or testosterone peak season. When the social and physical needs of elephants are not met, it leads to redirected aggression both at people and objects. This frustration and aggression results in Kaavan breaking his enclosure walls, and other objects.

Captive elephants are often retired to sanctuaries abroad after serving for sometime in zoos. It is a common practice and results in a renewed longevity of the elephant’s life. A sanctuary like the Burmese Sanctuary will offer the space, as well as the social and environmental stimulation Kaavan needs to overcome his zoonosis.

In 1989, more than half of the 147 zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) had elephants. Today, only one-third of the 224 accredited zoos have them.

An elephant cannot viably be kept in captivity for both biological and ethical reasons. We like to compete with India in all fields. Thus, it may be of interest that in 2009, India’s Central Zoo Authority issued a directive stating that all 140 elephants living in Indian zoos must be moved to wildlife parks and sanctuaries where they can graze more freely. Zoo records for these zoo’s show that there has been no significant change in attendance since closing the elephant exhibit.

Zoos in Pakistan, including the Islamabad Zoo, lack the basics of an ordinary zoo. Due to their disregard for animals’ conditions, enclosures, and hygiene, these zoos directly violate each of the basic standards of international zoo animal care.

According to the Global Aquarium and Zoo Organization Standard Handbook, the condition and health of all animals in the zoo must be checked daily by those in charge of their care for that particular day. Any animals noted to be unduly stressed, sick or injured must receive immediate attention and, where necessary, treatment. This is never done at our zoos.

Kaavan’s health and condition are rarely checked by zoo staff. The conditions of the other animals have been consistently ignored as well.

The Global Aquarium and Zoo Organization Standard Guidelines also require that the animal should be provided with natural behaviour-stimulating enrichment and species-appropriate socialisation, as well as a diet which is considered to be nutritionally balanced and provides appropriate levels of known dietary essential nutrients based on current knowledge and information.

Environmental enrichment is the process of providing stimulating environments for zoo animals in order for them to demonstrate their species-typical behaviour; to allow them exercise control or choice over their environment; and to enhance their well-being. It allows for a release of frustration and keeps zoo animals from developing repetitive behavioural issues.

Kaavan has been kept in isolation and given no enrichment by the Islamabad Zoo. As a result, he has developed serious mental issues.

The Islamabad Zoo is feeding Kaavan a nutritionally deficient diet of bread, sugarcane and bananas. This diet lacks essential vitamins, trace minerals, joint supplements, and fibre.

The lack of hygiene in the Islamabad Zoo is one of the zoo’s biggest shortcomings. Kaavan is fed from the same wheelbarrow used to hold his manure. His pond is usually filled with unclean water leaving it a breeding ground for parasites. The other animals suffer from an unclean environment as well. Many of them have infected sores as a result.

Kaavan has served the Islamabad Zoo for nearly three decades; he deserves retirement.

Zoos across the world are recognising that elephants cannot be safely kept in captivity and are phasing out their elephants. Isn’t it about time that Kaavan was also sent to a proper sanctuary?

The character of a country can be judged by the way it protects its animals. The chaining of Kaavan and the subsequent refusal to retire him to sanctuary reflects badly on the image of Pakistan and its people.

The writers belong to the Free Kaavan Campaign.

Email: [email protected]



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