A scandal over elephant-hunting that forced Spain’s King Juan Carlos to make his first ever public apology has turned the popular monarchy into an endangered breed.

Spain’s Juan Carlos, 74, who has long been widely respected for leading his people to democracy after decades of dictatorship, is also popular for his down-to-earth manner.

But several troublesome months for the monarchy, topped by Juan Carlos’s apology for going on an expensive hunting trip to Botswana while his country suffers from a recession, have tarnished the king.

“He had to say something. The monarchy is probably in its darkest hour since the death of General Franco in 1975, when Juan Carlos acceded to the throne,” said historian Angel Bahamonde.

The hunting trip came to light because the king broke his hip in Botswana and was rushed home for surgery, but − remarkably for Spain − sympathy for his medical condition was overshadowed by indignation at his perceived excess.

The sight of Juan Carlos on crutches solemnly saying “I am very sorry” raised doubts not only about himself, but his heir Prince Felipe and the whole structure of Spain’s system of parliamentary monarchy.

Leaving hospital, the king said: “I made a mistake. It won’t happen again.”

“He had to say sorry and try to win back sympathy from a large part of Spanish society, or the monarchy risked being in serious danger this time,” wrote journalist José Antonio Zarzalejos in El Confidencial.

“It wasn’t just a matter of rescuing the monarchy from a state of public criticism that was hard to reverse, but to avoid compromising the future of Felipe and the whole institution for that matter.

“Felipe won’t have an easy time at all being king. This is a republican country that only accepts the monarchy when it comes in the form of someone like Juan Carlos.

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