When Spain's King Juan Carlos was revealed to have made a secret elephant-hunting trip in Botswana last month, his people roared with anger, slamming him for squandering Euro44,000 (HK$435,000) on a lavish tour while his country grapples with an economic crisis.
Some politicians called for his abdication. Eventually, the 74-year-old king, also the honorary president of the World Wildlife Fund in Spain, made a public apology and vowed not to repeat the 'mistake'. It wasn't clear, however, whether he was sorry for the extravagant spending or for killing elephants.
Things might have been easier if King Carlos were a mainland Chinese, where cultural attitudes towards safari hunting are more accepting, and where the sport is fast becoming a favoured pastime of the nouveau riche.
In recent years, a growing number of mainlanders with deep pockets - many of them businessmen - have acquired a taste for trophy hunting. The inexperienced hunters like to travel on package tours offered by a small number of mainland-based or overseas tour operators.
Connected to hunting sectors in different places, the tour operators fly Chinese travellers on foreign safaris, equipping them with the hunting permits and guns to shoot anything from rabbit to antelope to lion within a designated hunting zone.
Take 52safari International Hunting Club, a Beijing company founded by an American hunter. Since 2009, it has been organising overseas hunting tours to South Africa, Canada and Argentina, among other destinations.
A 10-day black bear-hunting trip to Canada costs about 80,000 yuan (HK$98,000) per person, which includes flights, accommodation, hunting permits, a coach and a DVD featuring the traveller's adventure. A Chinese chef will also tag along to cook the game. Those who pay another 35,000 yuan can go home with a carpet made out of bearskin. A tip of 'several hundred US dollars' is recommended.
In New Zealand, the China Club of International Adventure also runs high-end hunting tours with a price tag of at least NZ$800 (HK$4,800) a day. Crown Xu, who founded the club nine years ago, says many of his clients are overseas Chinese, but he has noticed a marked increase in travellers from the mainland over the past two years.
'The majority of them are rich, middle-aged businessmen. They are usually from northern China, where the natural environment nurtured the tradition of hunting. Those from the south prefer fishing,' says Xu, a Beijing native who migrated to New Zealand two decades ago. 'Sometimes the men come with their wives, girlfriends or mistresses, who also take part in the hunting. Those who don't hunt are charged half price.'
Xu says hunting appeals to well-heeled mainlanders partly because of the perceived prestige of the sport, often associated with royalty and the upper classes. 'They have money so they want to try what they regard as a Western hobby,' he says.
The interest in hunting abroad is also due to the fact that there are only some 20 regulated hunting grounds in China, which are usually poorly managed, Xu says. 'Little effort is made to maintain the animals so they are not physically attractive or fit. That is because hunting in China is about killing an animal and eating it. There is no trophy hunting,' he says, which he defines as hunting animals with prized physical qualities.
A Beijing-based hunter from Europe who does not want to be identified says there are two types of hunters in China. 'One has the means to go hunting abroad; the other doesn't have enough money and so remains in China to poach.'
The sport is controversial, to say the least. A Guangzhou Daily article in February about a polar bear hunt in Canada that cost a whopping 498,800 yuan sparked waves of online criticism. The tour company, 52safari, withdrew details of the tour package from its website. Founder W. Scott Lupien has not responded to the Money Post's interview request, but in an online statement posted in March, he says 'we have had no demand from Chinese clients to book a polar bear hunt'.
Some argue that hunting ensures game populations remain stable and healthy, and income generated can be used to protect wildlife habitats.
But Liu Huili, a project researcher with the Beijing green group Darwin Natural Knowledge Society, says few in the safari industry are pushing the conservation message.
'If you ask these Chinese nouveau riche the relationship between ecology and hunting, they will not be able to say anything meaningful. Likewise, the Americans who go to China to shoot gazelles won't care how the money is used for conservation,' Liu says.
Xu, meanwhile, remains undaunted by the controversy. In June, he will go to China to attend a travel expo, where he will sell overseas safaris to mainlanders.
'In the West, there is always an interest in hunting, but people there have less money now. So the focus is on China ... I go there for the money,' he says.