- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 26, 2010

LONDON (AP) - It’s a photo of animal majesty that has turned into a murder mystery: Who shot the Emperor? Nature lovers on Tuesday were mourning a red stag dubbed the Emperor of Exmoor _ a 9-foot (2.75-meter) giant reported to be the biggest wild animal in the British Isles. He was found dead days after his picture appeared in the national press.

The Emperor’s size set him apart from the herd, but may also have made him prize prey for hunters willing to pay handsomely for such a majestic trophy.

“With a set of antlers such as this deer had, it was basically going to kill him in the end,” said Richard Austin, the photographer whose images appeared in newspapers _ inevitably accompanied by the word “majestic.”

“He was his own worst enemy, I suppose,” Austin told the BBC. “Growing that big and that huge and that magnificent, he was a definite target.”

For the 12 years of his life, the Emperor roamed Exmoor in southwest England, a wild swath of heath and woodland that has drawn hunters for 1,000 years. At 300 pounds (135 kilograms), he towered over the other stags around him, and during the autumn mating season he easily kept smaller animals at bay as he attracted a harem of female deer.

Austin photographed the stag during last year’s mating season and again this year, publishing photos that expanded the animal’s renown. The photos, first published Oct. 5, showed the Emperor standing regally in a field, his dramatic antlers held high, and roaring as two female deer looked on.

Mystery surrounds the stag’s demise. Douglas Batchelor, head of the anti-hunting group League Against Cruel Sports, said he was shot two weeks ago near a place called Rackenford Moor. Local and national media including the BBC gave a similar location, close to a main road between the towns of Barnstaple and Tiverton.

The Emperor’s body is long gone _ his head possibly to a taxidermist, the rest probably to a butcher.

In most cases the hunter _ for a fee _ takes the antlers or entire head as a trophy. The landowner keeps the carcass, which often ends up being sold for meat. Exmoor’s stags are also stalked by poachers, who sell their meat for cash.

Austin said he deliberately did not reveal the Emperor’s exact location, but some wondered whether the attention his images drew to the animal may have helped bring about its death.

“Without a doubt the publicity of this photo led to its death,” said Manni Walton, European sales director of the Corbis photo agency.

Patrick Llewellyn, assistant picture editor at The Sunday Times Magazine, said it was possible publicity made the Emperor a target. “But anyone who is interested in choosing a trophy stag probably would’ve known of its existence before the exposure of the photograph anyway, so it is very hard to tell.”

Local people were speculating furiously Tuesday about the identity and nationality of the hunter: Was it an American, a European, or a wealthy Briton who saw the picture and decided he wanted those magnificent antlers on his wall?

“Whoever has got the trophy is going to keep pretty quiet about it, because it has stirred the most awful furor,” said Peter Donnelly, a deer management expert in the Exmoor area.

For centuries, deer hunting was the sport of English kings. Henry VIII hunted near his palaces at Greenwich and Richmond _ now London parks, still full of deer. Queen Elizabeth II’s husband Prince Philip and other members of the royal family hunt stags on their Balmoral estate in Scotland.

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