PARIS Dec 7 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
(Editing by Christian Lowe and Mark Heinrich)