Filmmaker David Lee, conservationist Mike Veale to screen ‘Last Ranger,’ illuminating devastation of South African rhino poaching

David Lee (left) and Mike Veale (right)

David Lee has spent his entire life around movies. His mother was an Emmy-nominated casting director, talent agent and producer. His sister is a film and television director. And he’s been acting since he was 19 years old.

At 9:15 p.m. Sunday  in Smith Wilkes Hall, the Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative will screen “The Last Ranger,” Lee’s first foray into writing for the screen, which has a run time of 28 minutes. That’s followed by a discussion with Lee and Mike Veale, founder and president of Global Conservation Force.

“The Last Ranger” tells the story of a young girl and her father who find themselves caught in the middle of the rhino poaching epidemic that has eviscerated much of South Africa’s rhinoceros population over the past 15 years.

The story is deeply personal to Lee, who grew up in South Africa and currently lives in Los Angeles. In 2018, he was visiting a friend who worked as a wildlife veterinarian in South Africa. Lee’s friend received a call about an injured rhino that had been found at a neighboring farm. The rhino had been poached and its horn had been removed.

“I was just devastated,” Lee said. “I’d never sat in an environment like that before.”

He asked his friend what he could do, how he could prevent the same demise for other rhinos in his native country. 

“His response is always, ‘Just get the story out, get people talking,’” Lee said. “Make sure the conversation is had about poaching and the severity of it, and how close these rhinos are going to come to extinction if people don’t talk about it and do something about it.”

Lee knew the best way for him to spread the word was to stay within the world he had spent over half of his life working in: film. 

He had wanted to write a movie for some time by then, and he immediately knew that this story was one that deserved to be turned into a film. Originally, he planned for “The Last Ranger” to be a full length, action-packed thriller, featuring huge battles between poachers and rangers. Lee compared the early drafts to “Blood Diamond,” a film about the violent diamond trade in Sierra Leone at the turn of the 21st century.

The original idea proved to be a massive undertaking, and Lee was struggling to finish the whole screenplay. Then, in 2021, he was approached by a pair of producers hoping to find short stories from different countries around the world. 

“I said, ‘Well, I don’t have a short, but I can rewrite what I’ve got,’” Lee recalled saying.

So he transformed the original story into a short film, centering the dynamic of the young girl and her father, and drawing inspiration from a real rhino: Thandi, who survived a brutal poaching attempt and went on to have five calves. The veterinarian that led the effort to save Thandi was the same veterinarian who implored Lee to spread the world about the brutal reality of poaching in South Africa.

The movie was filmed in one week on location in South Africa. Lee recalled partnering with anti-poaching organizations and rangers, including Veale and his Global Conservation Force, to ensure the content of the film was as accurate as possible. The team behind the film even set up ranger training sessions for the actors in the film. 

The film began showing at film festivals around the world in 2023, winning multiple awards for audience favorite and best short film. And in February of this year, “The Last Ranger” won Best Narrative Short at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles, qualifying it for consideration at the 2025 Academy Awards.

“Hopefully, if we can get it into a couple of rounds of the Oscars, and into the final round, then it reaches millions of people,” Lee said. “And the hope is that it’ll get picked up … and more people will see it, more people talk about it, (and) more people will be aware of the necessity of where we’re at with this devastating rhino situation.”

After the film was finished, Lee recalled showing it to William Fowlds, his veterinarian friend that inspired Lee to make the movie.

“He said, ‘It’s amazing, because it means the voice will get out there, and then people talk about it,’” Lee recalled. “‘And all the rhinos that have died and that have suffered, haven’t suffered and died in vain. That’s the important thing.”

Tags : Chautauqua Climate Change InitiativeDavid LeeFilmmaker David LeeGlobal Conservation ForceMike Vealerhino poachingSouth AfricaThe Last Ranger

The author Jeremy Kohler