Tony James, after giving a bullish forecast for alternative assets at Blackstone Group’s investor day, joined Hillary and Bill Clinton for dinner in a tent last night at the Central Park Zoo.
The meal was sea bass, catered by Creative Edge Parties. The occasion, a gala for the Wildlife Conservation Society billed as a “celebration of gentle giants,” referring to the African elephant, not the honorees: Hillary and Chelsea Clinton, and conservation philanthropist Diane Christensen, a WCS trustee.
James, a WCS trustee who hosted a fundraising dinner for President Obama in 2012, sat one seat removed from the former president. Both leaned forward and gesticulated with their hands as they conversed.
The former Secretary of State sat between her husband and Cristian Samper, president of the society. The centerpieces were recycled-cardboard elephants on squares of grass.
In April, James told the Evening Standard it’s “highly likely” Hillary Clinton will run for president in 2016. (Yesterday, he told Blackstone’s investors that assets across the firm’s alternative-asset division could double within 12 months.)
Rebels overran a WCS study site last year in the Central African Republic and shot 26 elephants, an incident that drove Samper to ask for Clinton’s help.
“I remember our meeting very well,” Hillary Clinton said in her remarks. “We’re losing the war, he said. He asked what could be done to stop killing, to stop trafficking.”
Poachers use helicopters, night goggles and automatic weapons in their quest for ivory, killing elephants and the rangers trying to protect them. The smuggling and sale of ivory supports terrorism and the illegal drug trade.
At the rate they are being killed, 96 a day, African elephants will be extinct in 10 years, Hillary Clinton said. “It’s an ecological disaster and a threat to the security, stability and economic development in Africa.”
The issue is now a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to action. Its goals include lowering demand for decorative objects made of ivory, especially in China, where most of the tusks are being sent.
“It’s going to take hard choices about what we buy and sell,” Hillary Clinton said, echoing the title of her book “Hard Choices,” published Tuesday.
The book has sent her on a media blitz including interviews on “Good Morning America” and “Fresh Air,” where she was firm, not gentle, with host Terry Gross. The book doesn’t list elephants in its index.
Hillary Clinton did get to share some good news: she said the New York State Assembly passed legislation Wednesday amending the state’s environment law to ban ivory sales, with a few exceptions. She also gave a shout-out to the PBS program “Antiques Roadshow” for deciding not to feature appraisals of ivory tusks.
She said the fate of the African elephant is a personal matter as well as a policy matter (she hosted a State Department conference on the issue in 2012). “I owe my heightened awareness to one of the NBC segments Chelsea put together” in her time at the broadcaster, which concerned an effort “to save baby elephants left behind after their mothers are slaughtered,” she said.
Chelsea Clinton said working with the society has helped create a “coordinated plan.” Its three prongs are training and equipping guards in parks in Central and Eastern Africa (and also rooting out corrupt guards working for traffickers), using sniffer dogs to identify ivory in shipping containers at ports and airports, and educating consumers to reduce demand.
Chelsea Clinton also called attention to WCS work closer to her home. Pregnant with her first child with hedge-fund manager Marc Mezvinsky, with whom she sat at a table next to her parents’, she said she looks forward to taking her family to the Bronx Zoo.
She herself has visited the zoo, operated by the society, where she said she saw elephants, baby gorillas and giraffes. It’s “one of the most exciting things about living in New York,” she said. (Earlier, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio voiced his affection for another WCS zoo in Prospect Park, Brooklyn.)
On hand at the Central Park Zoo last night were sea lions who barked during Hillary Clinton’s remarks, a sloth and a cockatoo who circulated during cocktail hour amid a procession of African dancers and drummers.
A video of elephants in Africa was shown. For the record, there were no donkeys around.
Guests included David Koch, who hosted a fundraiser for 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney; real-estate developers Daniel Brodsky and Don Zucker; merger adviser Paul Taubman, a former Morgan Stanley executive now running his own firm; and David T. Schiff, both a former managing partner of Kuhn, Loeb & Co. and former chairman of the WCS.
Ward Woods, founding partner of Bessemer Holdings LP and the society’s current chairman, introduced the Clintons. Saving elephants, “no matter what your politics, is not a hard choice,” he said.
After the dinner for some 600 guests, an after-party for another thousand young patrons brought out DJ Chelsea Leyland, who said she had “lots of songs about animals” to play.
Elizabeth Bennett, vice-president for species conservation at the WCS, said Hillary Clinton’s participation was vital to the organization’s campaign to save the African elephant.
“At the end of the day you need the chairman in China to think it’s a serious issue, you need the big donors in Washington to think it’s a serious issue, you need the governments across Africa to think this isn’t just a little side domestic issue, this is an internationally important issue,” Bennett said. “That’s something Secretary Clinton can do to an extent that we can’t.”
Fifty-two percent of Americans view the former secretary of state favorably, according to a Bloomberg National Poll.