There seems to be a never-ending glut of conservation documentaries, where a group of fearless men and women work tirelessly to get sad animals rehomed in the wild. However, chances are you haven’t seen any of them, because you made a deal with yourself as a child to only watch conservation documentaries that contain scenes where traumatised animals are serenaded at close proximity by the popular singer and actor Cher.
And if that’s the case, then Cher and the Loneliest Elephant is just the show for you, because that’s what happens in it. There is a lonely elephant, and he’s rehomed in the wild, but not before Cher flies to his side in order to perform a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s My Way to it.
At this point, especially if you spend time online, the story of Kaavan the elephant should be quite well known to you. Kaavan was once the star attraction at Islamabad Zoo, a run-down ruin of a place that seemed to be designed in order to give its animals the worst quality of life possible. He had spent 35 years chained up in a small, dry, miserable enclosure. His only companion died of neglect two years previously, after her chains gave her gangrene. He killed two zookeepers and compulsively rocks backwards and forwards all day long, like Ellen Burstyn in Requiem for a Dream. But luckily, one day Cher discovered him at the zoo and decided to save him.
Actually, that’s not true. In actual fact, Kaavan was discovered by an American vet called Dr Samar Khan, who started a social media campaign to raise awareness of the elephant’s plight and ultimately send him somewhere more suitable. But nobody would watch a show called Dr Samar Khan and the World’s Loneliest Elephant, would they? So let’s skip to the bit where Cher reads a tweet about Kaavan and responds with an impenetrable mixture of upper-case letters and elephant emojis. That’s much more exciting, isn’t it?
Isn’t it? The truth is that Cher was actually quite instrumental in saving Kaavan. She took it upon herself to found a wild animal welfare organisation with Bob Geldof’s manager and a model manager from South Africa, and set about linking up with local organisations with the expertise to free him. But at the same time, Cher is really just a headline name here, to the extent that Cher and the Loneliest Elephant often doubles as a weird demonstration of the limits of celebrity power.
As far as the documentary is concerned, all the important work is done by Dr Amir Khalil of the welfare organisation Four Paws International. It’s he who forges a bond with Kaavan, and figures out the logistics of his transportation, and who basically straps himself to the side of a truck so that Kaavan won’t get too freaked out on a motorway. He has help, of course, not least from a wonderful Dutch transport coordinator who repeatedly and graphically warns everyone of what will happen to an aeroplane if an abused and disorientated bull elephant – in a stage of his hormonal cycle where he is effectively mad with horniness – breaks out of his crate during a flight, but he’s the one who does the bulk of the legwork.
Meanwhile, Cher does what Cher does best. She relentlessly tweets all-caps acronyms and emojis to members of the Pakistani government, even though she now admits that it “didn’t seem to work”. She records a song about Kaavan (“Look at their lives / Can we save them somehow / Cause I just wanna see the walls crashing down”), which doesn’t seem to have any immediate effect. In the end, she flies to Islamabad and, well, sings a Frank Sinatra song to an elephant and then goes home again.
She might have helped set the whole operation up, but a documentary like this requires a physical presence to sell the connection. The problem is that, in terms of boots on the ground, there isn’t really an awful lot that a septuagenarian pop singer can do. If you’re anything like me, you’ll spend quite a lot of this documentary willing Cher to get out of the way so the experts can take over.
Which isn’t to say that it’s all bad, of course. Cher appears to have licensed the first 20 seconds of Believe to the programme, so we get to hear that over and over again whenever there’s any good news. And she is, despite her lack of experience when it comes to loading elephants on to cargo planes, a relentlessly engaging presence. And, hands up, I totally would not have watched this had she not been in it. So maybe Cher wins after all. And who knows, five or six more of these rescue documentaries and she might even get her own Frank Sinatra covers album.
Cher and the Loneliest Elephant premieres on Paramount+ in the US and The Smithsonian Channel in the UK on 22 April