Cecil the Lion showed me what is wrong with American social media.

During my study abroad in South Africa, I went on a number of safaris and traveled through multiple countries with  particular hopes to see one of each of the Big 5: lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, and buffalo. One park that I went to in particular not only taught me about life in rural Africa, but it also taught me about my own countries’ growing social media issues. Hwange National Park, located in Zimbabwe, Africa, was the home of the well known lion Cecil, who was slain by an American dentist. That is what America knows about this park.

When our group asked our safari guides about Cecil the Lion, we were not answered with sorrowed faces, we were asked if we were “actually serious.” After quite a few begs and pleads, our guide, Ty, gave us Americans a lesson on the difference between who “Cecil the Lion” was in Zimbabwe, and who “Cecil the Lion” is in America, and the truth about the whole story.

99% of Zimbabweans could not tell you who “Cecil the Lion” was. 99% of Americans have probably posted online about him. “Cecil” was known as “one of the world’s most famous lions,” reported by abcnews, when in actuality, if “Cecil” was standing with his pride, no one but a select few would have any idea which lion he was, and approximately one quarter of the population would even know the name. Contrary to what social media reported, although Cecil was tagged, researchers were not legally allowed to name tagged animals, only referring to them as numbers.

Americans were told the dentist went poaching in Hwange National Park. We were told the dentist hunted this specific lion for weeks and illegally captured and killed him. Not only did American social media hone into the deep feelings and misunderstandings most people have about hunting, but they did so without investigation, without speaking to the dentist, and without talking to any one person living, loving, or caring for this park and its animals. Not only was the dentist, Walter Palmer, hunting with a completely legal hunting license, but Hwange abides by extremely strict hunting laws.

Firstly, in order to legally hunt in Hwange National Park you must schedule the date you will arrive and the date you will be leaving when you book your stay. Secondly, the park has its own schedule of hunting hours, and you must return into the living quarters and out of the park during the allotted hours or you receive a strike. If you receive a certain number of strikes, you are no longer welcome at Hwange. Lastly, with these scheduled dates and times, one may not see any animal for days on end, but when it is time to go, you must go, with or without a kill.

Where was the explanation of the highly structured rules that were respected by guides and hunters alike? Where were the stories eluding to the high regard that each animal within Hwange was held to? More importantly, why was this the one big happening that gained hours and hours of media coverage?

Not only did Ty point out to us that the population of rhinos would be completely extinct within twenty-five years, and ask why the brutal mauling by a lion of his co-worker and good friend a few weeks earlier had not been in the news, but he reminded us that Zimbabwe is continuously facing drought, famine, hyperinflation, and genocide, all of which fail to make it to the news.

Although it is upsetting that there is one less majestic creature roaming in Hwange, it is also disheartening to be enlightened to the idea that Americans choose to focus on something such as Cecil the Lion, as it is a topic that can cause an uproar, but just as easily be forgotten. There was no real help that people could contribute, no real way to “fix” the non-issue issue, it was simply a way to distract citizens from issues such as famine and hyperinflation in Zimbabwe or homelessness and racism in America; it was a way to distract us from issues that needed work and needed to be solved.

Cecil the Lion, with the help of safari guide Ty, taught me that American social media is just that- American, social, media. It taught me to never take media for face value; it taught me to always ask questions and explore further.

Cecil taught me to research before I judged and to try to understand before I prosecute. Although I may not be flying back to Zimbabwe to go hunting any time soon, I wouldn’t think twice about flying back to get the truth about the next poaching story that is plastered across American televisions and radio shows.

In the end, I was taught that even if it is a saddening truth that hunting occurs and is even deemed necessary in countries like Zimbabwe, and that beautiful animals are lost for an abundant number of reasons daily, it pains me more to think that I live in a country that seeks no further than to report on what will be prevalent among popular culture. It sickens me more to learn that I cannot trust the information that is supposed to enlighten and teach me about the world on a daily basis. This no longer becomes of question of the dentist’s motives, but begs the question of the incentives and goals of social media in the US.

Despite my expansive learnings on the story of Cecil, I did not have the pleasure of seeing a lion roaming freely, but below are some pictures of the other incredible things we did come across.

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