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PARIS, Dec 7 (Reuters) - Hollywood heartthrob and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio is competing for another Oscar against an unlikely rival - a former top aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Critics are touting DiCaprio's "The Ivory Game", about Africa's illegal ivory trade, for a prestigious Academy Award in the documentary film category along with a film on the same subject by Sergey Yastrzhembsky, the Kremlin's best-known spokesman in the West for more than a decade.
The silver-haired ex-diplomat spent most of his working life deflecting media criticism as Putin's spokesman on Chechnya and special envoy to Brussels, and earlier as the Kremlin's mouthpiece under the late Boris Yeltsin.
Now Yastrzhembsky is trying to cause a stir with his "Ivory - A Crime Story", which names and shames top ivory buyers such as China, the Vatican and Buddhist monks in Thailand.
It highlights how the population of elephants in Africa has dropped to less than 500,000 from 1.5 million in the past 30 years and that every 15 minutes an elephant is slaughtered by poachers for its ivory. The price of ivory soared to $3,000 a kilo from $6 some 35 years ago, according to the documentary.
If nothing is done, conservationists say the African elephant could be extinct in the wild within a generation.
"We can only hope that this film will get the world to pay more attention to this sad situation regarding elephants in Africa," Yastrzhembsky told Reuters in an interview in Paris.
His documentary, which took three years and cost $1 million to make, won prizes this year at the Montreal, Rome and New York film festivals. Harsh scenes include one of an elephant being shot and then moaning as it is hacked to pieces by poachers.
Yastrzhembsky said Pope Francis saw a shortened version of his film before publicly speaking out in Nairobi against ivory poaching in Kenya.
He also said he helped convince Russia's nuclear energy agency RosAtom, which he initially approached to co-finance the film, to spend money on protecting wildlife around a uranium deposit it intends to mine in Tanzania.
Yastrzhembsky said he showed a trailer to DiCaprio three years ago on the yacht of a mutual friend, the real-estate oligarch Vladimir Zemstov, in the French resort of Saint Tropez.
Yastrzhembsky said he invited DiCaprio to take part in his project financially or do the voiceover, but talks never bore fruit. "I think DiCaprio wanted to do his own film," he said. DiCaprio's "The Ivory Game" debuted at the Toronto Film Festival in September. (Editing by Christian Lowe and Mark Heinrich)