An ill-fated elephant hunting trip in Botswana has left Spain's King Juan Carlos facing calls to quit his honorary presidency of the Spanish branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Spain's King Juan Carlos is facing pressure to quit his presidency of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature's Spanish branch after Spanish media said he had visited Botswana to hunt elephants.
Criticism of his exploits, which became public because the 74-year-old broke his right hip at a Botswana safari camp, had prompted 45,000 signatures to a petition by late Monday.
Signatories on the online forum Actuable urged Juan to give up his Spanish WWF presidency.
Spain's palace refrained from denying widespread media reports that Juan Carlos had been hunting in Botswana. A Botswana government spokesman told the AFP news agency that the king had slipped in his chalet while visiting the northern Okavango region.
"He had a hunting permit for hunting elephant," said spokesman Jeff Ramsay.
Irreconciable? WWF and Juan Carlos' foible for hunting
The influential right-leaning newspaper El Mundo pointed to Spain's economic crisis, saying it had been "irresponsible" for the king to go hunting at "a most inopportune moment," while Spaniards endure 23 percent unemployment and an economy forecast to shrink by 1.7 percent this year.
Several leftist groups questioned the king's motives, with Madrid Socialist leader Tomas Gomez even hinting at abdication. He said Spain's head of state needed to choose between his responsibilities and "an abdication which would allow him to enjoy a different life."
Bardot weighs in
Brigitte Bardot, the former French film starlet turned animal rights activist, joined the critics on Monday, with an open letter to the king published by her trust. She branded reports of his hunting adventure as "indecent, revolting and unworthy of a person of your rank."
"I hope that this fall will put your state of mind in order," Bardot added.
Juan Carlos has a reputation as a keen huntsman. In 2006, the palace rejected as "ridiculous" reports that while a trip to Russia he had allegedly shot dead a tame bear made drunk on vodka and honey.
The German branch of the WWF said it was also seeking an explanation from King Juan Carlos as head of its Spanish counterpart.
"We assume that it involved a legal trophy hunt. As honorary president of the Spanish WWF he would have been better off leaving it alone," said Roland Gramling, spokesman for the WWF's German branch.
"The dismay is quite understandable," Gramling added.
According to the WWF, hunting, when strictly supervised, can help regulate wildlife species' populations. For every elephant shot, Botswana charged 20,000 euros ($26,000) which must then flow into local conservation projects and benefit residents, it said. Last year, 400 elephants were culled during "regulated and sustainable trophy hunts," said the WWF. Across Africa last year, some 12,000 elephants are shot illegally, mostly by poachers.
Government spokesman Jeff Ramsay said Botswana had over 150,000 elephants, adding "They are too many."
King's trip abroad initially unknown
Spaniards had been unaware their otherwise popular king was abroad until the palace disclosed that Juan Carlos had been flown back to Madrid for hospital treatment over the weekend.
Doctors on Monday said his condition had improved "very positively" since his operation early Saturday.
The king is widely credited with helping steer Spain to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 and thwarting a coup attempt in 1981.
The Spanish monarchy has in recent months faced other public relations dramas, including a corruption scandal implicating his son-in-law, the Duke of Palma, Inaki Urdangarin. Last week, one of Juan's grandchildren, 13-year-old Felipe Juan Froilan, accidentally shot himself in the foot.
ipj/ncy (dpa, AFP, AP)