How Cher Helped Save the 'World's Loneliest Elephant' and Even Sang to Him: 'It Was Life-Changing'

In the documentary Cher & The Loneliest Elephant, the singer shares how she successfully fought to move Kaavan, an elephant living alone at the Islamabad Zoo, to a Cambodian sanctuary

Cher elephant
Cher and Kaavan. Photo: Courtesy The Smithsonian Channel

When Cher first learned about Kaavan — a zoo pachyderm known as "The World's Loneliest Elephant" — via Twitter, she remembers thinking, "I can't go to Islamabad and save an elephant." But over the course of the next four years, that's exactly what she did.

"We just put one foot in front of the other," says the 74-year-old entertainer who, after hearing about the elephant, started lobbying to get Kaavan out of the Islamabad Zoo in Pakistan, where he'd been held shackled and alone for years. The plan was to move Kaavan to the Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia to roam free amongst other elephants. Along with Mark Cowne, she co-founded Free the Wild — a nonprofit to help end the mistreatment of wild animals in captivity — to make this goal a reality.

By Nov. 2020, thanks to Free the Wild's partnership with FOUR PAWS, international lobbying efforts, and a #FreeKaavan social media push, the elephant was cleared to move from the Islamabad Zoo to the Wildlife Sanctuary.

To ensure Kaavan made the trip safely, his rescuers created a custom crate to carry the elephant and outfitted and reinforced a plane for the animal. Veterinarian Dr. Amir Khalil from FOUR PAWS — with the help of bamboo treats —gradually trained Kaavan to walk into his large travel crate so he could comfortably fly to the Wildlife Sanctuary.

Cher flew to Pakistan to meet Kaavan at the start of his journey to a more humane home. "The first thing I noticed was how big he was, and you have to respect that. Also, he had beautiful long eyelashes, and he had a sweetness to him," she tells PEOPLE of the meeting.

They also shared another bond. "Elephants love music," Cher says. "Somehow, Dr. Amir got him hooked on My Way. Even though he and I sounded horrible together, when we started to sing, I could see a change in Kaavan. I think he knew we were there to help him."

Cher was there to greet Kaavan at the end of his trip as well and was part of the group to welcome him to his new life at the Wildlife Sanctuary.

"I can't explain it in words. It was joyous," she says of the moment Kaavan first arrived at the sanctuary. "He was so engaged. His behavior had completely changed."

She tells the story her journey with Kaavan in the new documentary Cher & The Loneliest Elephant which premieres on the Smithsonian Channel in the US and Canada on Wednesday, May 19th at 8 pm ET/PT and also available on Paramount Plus.

"I hope the documentary will create change and people will think more about not having large animals in captivity — and that we'll now have street cred so we'll be able to do more," she says. "If you like animals or have extra money to buy a t-shirt, that's great I'm just happy for people to see the documentary and enjoy it."

"It was a life-changing experience, one of the most amazing of my life," Cher adds.

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