LONDON – 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.
The pursuit is at its strongest in Scotland and southwest England, whose large herds draw affluent hunters from around the world.
A former royal hunting ground, Exmoor is popular with local hunters and wealthy outsiders, who jet in to stalk red deer — Britain's largest land animal. The Emperor was a big representative of his species, though not the largest ever recorded. Red deer can be bigger — anywhere between 130 pounds (60 kilograms) and 420 pounds (190 kilograms), according to the British Deer Society.
Hunters pay landowners for the right to hunt on their land and take away sets of antlers as trophies — or, for a higher fee, the whole head. If the hunter has a license and it's done during the hunting season, as in this case, it's perfectly legal.
Hunting is a divisive issue in Britain, where the traditional practice of chasing down animals with packs of hounds was outlawed in 2004 — though with enough loopholes that hunting carries on pretty much unimpeded across the country.
These days deer are either stalked using high-powered rifles, or tracked down by hunters on horseback who use a pair of hounds to flush out the animal, which is then shot.
Supporters say it is a vital part of the rural economy, but hunting is bitterly opposed by some animal lovers.
Batchelor, of the League Against Cruel Sports, said it was "morally repugnant" to shoot animals for sport.
But animal conservationists say hunting helps maintain the health of the deer herd. Since bears, wolves and other large carnivores are extinct in Britain, the animals have no natural predators, and thousands are legally hunted every year to keep numbers in check.
Michael Yardley of the Shooting Sports Trust said it makes sense to kill older deer like the Emperor, who experts estimate was about 12, based on his size and antlers. Red deer can live for 15 or even 20 years.
"A deer past this age may properly be shot, and, indeed, should be shot, to allow younger fitter beasts into the harem, and also because it may well die of starvation as its incisors deteriorate," Yardley said.
Donnelly, no opponent of hunting, said it was wrong to shoot the Emperor during the rutting season, when the strongest stags compete to mate with the choicest female deer, locking antlers with rivals as they fight for supremacy.
"He was still in his prime. He did not need to be culled," Donnelly said. "There's plenty of rubbish stags out there that could be shot and would do nothing but improve the quality of the herd."
"There is a moral and ethical code about this — you don't shoot the best beast before they have had a chance to mate."
Gillian Smith of the Associated Press contributed to this report.