Story highlights

King Juan Carlos' hunting trip sparks an outcry over its extravagance

Animal rights activists join the firestorm after reports emerge that he was hunting elephants

Spain is undergoing an economic crisis

"I am very sorry. I made a mistake and it won't happen again," the king says

(CNN) —  

Spain’s King Juan Carlos made a rare public apology Wednesday for his recent hunting trip to Africa that has caused an outcry in Spain and abroad for its expense during the nation’s economic crisis and for hunting elephants.

The king’s private visit came to light this year when he was rushed back to Madrid to undergo hip surgery after falling during the trip.

A firestorm ensued, forcing the 74-year-old king to apologize in April.

“I am very sorry. I made a mistake and it won’t happen again,” the king told Spanish state television TVE as he left a Madrid hospital, where he underwent hip surgery last weekend after falling on the hunting trip in Botswana.

Spain’s king apologizes for African hunting trip

The Spanish chapter of the WWF voted Saturday to abolish the honorary post, which the king has held since 1968.

“Although not illegal, the hunting was widely viewed as incompatible with the King’s position at the head of WWF-Spain,” the group said in a statement.

There was no immediate response from the royal palace.

Spaniards generally hold the king in high regard for his service to the nation and his defense of democracy after the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975 – especially the king’s decisive stand to halt a right-wing military coup in 1981.

The criticism of the trip initially focused on the expensive safari in the midst of the nation’s deep crisis, with 23% unemployment, 5 million Spaniards out of work, and the government applying austerity cuts and tax increases to make up for budget shortfalls.

The king himself had previously expressed his concern over the impact of the crisis on Spaniards and called on the nation to come together to get through the tough times.

The royal household has a budget of 8.26 million euros ($10.8 million) this year, 2% less than last year, and had recently announced cuts of about $222,000, including trimming salaries of the highest-paid staffers at the royal palace.

The criticism of the king comes amid frequent mention of the royal household in the news lately, much of it in an uncustomary unflattering light.

Earlier this month, the king’s 13-year-old grandson shot himself in the foot with a shotgun during target practice with his father, who is divorced from the king’s eldest daughter, Princess Elena. The legal age in Spain to handle firearms, even when accompanied by an adult, is 14.

And the king’s son-in-law, Inaki Urdangarin, who is married to the youngest daughter, Princess Cristina, is a suspect in a financial fraud scandal in which public funds earmarked for his foundation allegedly were diverted for private use. Urdangarin denies the charges.

CNN’s Al Goodman contributed to this report