MADRID – Spain's 74-year-old king came under scathing criticism Sunday for going on an expensive elephant hunting trip in Botswana amid the nation's deep financial woes.
Making matters worse, an accident on the trip sent King Juan Carlos into surgery. Doctors said Sunday that he was recovering well after a hip replacement but would not be able to resume full duties for more than a month.
His son, 44-year-old Prince Felipe, was nominated to fill in for his father, who Spain's government relies on to patch up diplomatic disputes, boost international trade and serve as the country's high-profile liaison.
Tomas Gomez, Madrid's regional Socialist party leader, said the time had come for the head of state to choose between his public responsibilities "and an abdication that would allow him to enjoy a different lifestyle.'"
Spanish newspapers were filled with accounts of how hunting trips to Botswana, where Juan Carlos fell, cost more than most Spaniards earn in a year. El Pais, Spain's leading newspaper, said the cost to arrange a hunting trip in Botswana to kill an elephant usually comes in at €44,000 ($57,850), about twice the country's average annual salary.
Spain is currently perceived as the weakest link in the 17-nation eurozone, and many investors fear it could become the next country to seek an international bailout. But the country with eurozone's No. 4 economy is seen as too big to bail out. Unemployment stands at nearly 23 percent — nearly 50 percent for young workers — and Spain is expected to slide into its second recession in three years soon.
The accident happened Friday while the king was on safari in Botswana's northern Okavango region and he was immediately flown home by private jet. Juan Carlos had a hip replacement early Saturday, and by Sunday had begun walking with crutches, said Angel Villamor, a spokesman for San Jose hospital, where the king is recovering.
Newspaper El Mundo, which usually supports Spain's royalty, reported the king had been hunting elephants for four days in Botswana before he tripped and fell before dawn Friday at the chalet where he was staying.
Citing royal spokesman Rafael Spottorno, El Mundo said the king had not told Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy's government of his trip abroad until after the accident.
"The prime minister must know at all times where the head of state is," El Mundo said in an editorial.
United Left lawmaker Cayo Lara said he would ask questions about the trip in parliament, saying the king had shown "a lack of ethics" by going to hunt big game as many young Spaniards faced unemployment.
The royal family has been under close media scrutiny in recent months due to a judicial probe into whether Princess Cristina's husband, Inaki Urdangarin, used his position to secure lucrative deals for a nonprofit foundation he ran, then fraudulently diverted some of the money for personal benefit.
This is not the first time the aging monarch's love of hunting has caused concern. In October 2006, a Russian governor launched an inquiry into reports that Juan Carlos had shot and killed a bear while on holiday near Moscow.
Vyacheslav Pozgalyov, governor of the Vologda region northeast of Moscow, had reportedly received a letter from the region's deputy hunting chief, Sergei Starostin, claiming a bear had been fed honey mixed with vodka before being released near where the king was to hunt.
Spain's royals have experienced their share of gun-related tragedies, most recently on April 9 when the king's 13-year-old grandson, Felipe Juan Froilan, accidentally shot his foot during target practice at a family estate.
It is illegal in Spain for children under 14 to possess or discharge firearms, so the incident could land the boy's father with a €6,000 ($7,900) fine.
The most serious shooting incident occurred in 1956 when Juan Carlos accidentally shot and killed his 14-year-old brother while handling a gun during a school vacation visit to his exiled father's home in Estoril, Portugal.
Alan Clendenning in Madrid contributed to this report.