The WWF would prefer Spain's King Carlos to step down as President of its Spanish chapter after it emerged he was hunting elephants in Botswana. Yet the group defends such hunts under certain conditions.
If King Juan Carlos hadn't broken his hip, his expensive hunting trip to Botswana might never have made headlines.
As it happened, he not only injured himself, but also the standing of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). It emerged that the king, who is also president of Spain's chapter of the WWF, sustained his injuries while hunting elephants.
"Public opinion is clear. People don't want an honorary president of the WWF hunting elephants," said Roland Gramling, spokesman for the organisation in Germany.
WWF relies heavily on donors' love of wildlife to attract funding and support, and the revelations have sent it into damage control.
This week, thousands signed petitions calling on the king to stand down from his role at WWF Spain. Pressure appears to be mounting within the organisation too.
"Even if the King's trophy hunt was legal, it's not appropriate for an honorary post at the WWF," Gramling said.
A difficult choice
Beyond WWF's fortunes, the incident has sparked debate on whether hunting elephants can be justified in the interests of conservation.
Trophy hunting presents a difficult ethical problem for the WWF, which says it may be one way to reduce poaching for ivory, the number one killer of Africa's elephants.
"It (poaching) kills 12,000 elephants a year," said Gramling. "We've also learned – and this can be a challenge for conservationists – that in some circumstances, regulated hunting has to be tolerated, because it reduces the poverty that fuels poaching."
Whether African elephants are officially allowed to be hunted depends on the status of the population, which varies widely across the 38 countries where they roam.
"Particularly in southern Africa, the populations are well managed," said Melanie Virtue, who manages conservation agreements, including one for the protection of endangered West African elephants, for the UN's Convention on Migratory Species.
"The populations are actually increasing in some places and there hasn't been in the past much illegal poaching of elephants. In East Africa, Central Africa, West Africa, the situation is very different. Populations there are under much more threat. They are often more scattered, there's much more illegal killing of elephants," she said.
In arid areas, the animals also face competition with humans for scarce resources, especially water.
A herd of elephants can devastate a farming family's income within minutes. With livelihoods at stake, human-elephant conflicts tend to leave the elephants off second best.
In southern Africa, the growth of the elephant population means they are culled in some national parks and hunted for sport elsewhere.
Making the environment pay?
Virtue says the key to their conservation is ensuring that they are seen as a valuable resource to their local communities, even if that produces difficult choices.
"If the local people see no benefits to having elephants on their land, they will kill them anyway, whether it's legal or not," said Virtue.
"There's a reason why there are no wolves and bears left in northern Europe – because the local communities didn't want them there. So you have to provide an incentive if you want to keep them."
Gramling says the WWF only tolerates elephant hunting under officially strict circumstances, and doesn't benefit itself from the proceeds.
"The prerequisite…is that no endangered species are hunted, that the hunt is subject to strict legal controls and that the population of the hunted species does not decline. In addition, the proceeds from the hunt must go towards supporting the local populace and environment," he said
Yet it's hard to avoid the impression that the Spanish king's expedition remains above all a shot in the foot for the organisation he was supposed to be representing.
Author: Irene Quaile
Editor: Nathan Witkop
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