A rather bashful King of Spain says he is “sorry” he went on a hunting trip in Botswana this week. News of the trip emerged after King Juan Carlos had to be flown home with a fractured hip.
The Spanish royal family has neither confirmed nor denied that the king was hunting elephants on this occasion, but he has done that on previous trips to Botswana.
There are two reasons why people are so upset with the king. The first is that they object to the idea of him killing elephants, which are large, charismatic and intelligent animals.
The king is honorary president of the Spanish branch of the conservation group WWF, so blasting away at game with a big gun seems an especially unbefitting activity.
In truth, the relationship between conservation and legal big game hunting in Africa is complicated. I’ve never had the urge to shoot an elephant, but I can see how the revenue from hunting (tourists will pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot certain species) can help impoverished communities in many parts of Africa.
Moreover, this income provides a powerful reason to conserve species and wild areas. Africa’s open spaces are fast disappearing, and if wildlife doesn’t pay its way, it may not survive.
The debate around elephant hunting is especially complicated. Some African countries, and Botswana is among them, have had great success in protecting their herds, and argue that hunting is not only profitable, but also beneficial for the environment, as growing elephant populations can wreak havoc on vegetation.
The problem is that most African countries (the southern part of the continent is the honourable exception) have a terrible record in protecting their elephants.
This recent BBC investigation showed the extent of illegal poaching in Africa , driven by demand for ivory in the Far East, and the way elephant herds are being decimated in eastern, central and western parts of the continent.
But to return to the King of Spain… The other reason why Spanish people are angry with him is, of course, that he indulged in an expensive and essentially frivolous activity at a time when his country is in the midst of a recession.
Unemployment is soaring, and many Spanish people are deep in debt. Only a handful can even dream of travelling to beautiful Botswana on safari, let alone forking out a fortune to shoot an elephant, assuming that’s how they would choose to spend their money.
I found this website, offering a 12-day elephant hunt in Botswana for $65,000.
The Spanish king is still a popular man, despite this PR disaster. Once he has recovered from his hip injury, however, I suspect he will not be rushing back to Africa to shoot elephants.