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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's a basic lesson in politics. If you're a national leader of a country with huge economic trouble, it may be a bad time to go on an extravagant elephant hunt. That is exactly what the king of Spain did, spending almost $60,000, more than twice the average Spanish salary, at a time when almost a quarter of all workers there have no job at all.

The Spanish public only found out about this trip because the king broke his hip and had to be airlifted home. Lauren Frayer has the story.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: For a man used to pomp and paparazzi, King Juan Carlos looked shaken, emerging from a hospital Wednesday after hip surgery.

KING JUAN CARLOS: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: I'm very sorry, he said, blinking into the cameras, sheepish and leaning on his crutches. I made a mistake and it won't happen again.

The Royal Palace confirmed this is the first time any Spanish king has ever said he's sorry, at least publicly, for anything.

RAFA LUCIA: I think it's not enough.

FRAYER: Rafa Lucia is a social worker smoking outside a Madrid library in the rain. He's been jobless for months. The government cut his local school's budget by 30 percent. But the Royal Palace's budget?

LUCIA: They cut just 2 percent. And now this. It's like the government doesn't cut to them and then he's spending the money in Africa killing elephants.

FRAYER: Spaniards can't decide which would be worse - whether the king might've spent public money on his jaunt to Botswana last week or whether it was paid by an Arab businessman courting favor, as some reports say. Either way, there are calls for the king's abdication.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if the king hadn't recently given a speech calling on Spanish leaders to set an example of modesty amid recession. He also said he loses sleep worrying about how many Spanish youth are unemployed - 50 percent of them.

Sharon Nunez is an animal rights activist who organized a protest outside the king's hospital this week. Volunteers lined the street with photos of maimed elephants and water buffalo.

SHARON NUNEZ: That's the funny, the ironic thing about it. We have someone who's going out killing elephants, killing animals, and he's representing an international environmental organization.

FRAYER: It's inconvenient, but true: The king is honorary president of the World Wildlife Fund in Spain, which proved particularly awkward when a snapshot of Juan Carlos began circulating online this week. It shows him posing in front of an elephant he shot dead in Botswana in 2006. WWF's conservation director for Spain, Enrique Segovia, says he's requested an audience with the king to discuss whether he'll keep that post.

ENRIQUE SEGOVIA: (Foreign language spoken)

FRAYER: We've had many, many complaints from members, he says. The image of the king hunting elephants, it's incongruent with an organization like ours that defends elephants.

Spain's monarchy is mostly symbolic but well-respected. Juan Carlos was hand-picked by General Francisco Franco to lead Spain after the dictator's 1975 death, and he's credited with easing the transition to democracy here. But college student Roy Alexander Bouzas says times have changed.

ROY ALEXANDER BOUZAS: It's true that old people here in Spain appreciate the work that the king did in the transition. But I think that we are now in another time. The transition is the past and the king has to do efforts like the rest of the citizens.

FRAYER: It's been a tough year for Spain's royals. The king's son-in-law is the subject of a corruption probe. And last week police began investigating an incident involving the king's underage grandson. The 13-year-old recently shot himself in the foot - literally.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

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