The Wrong Stuff: Prize-Winning Wildlife Photographer Accused Of Using Taxidermy

The shot is stunning at first glance. In the top half of the frame, stars hang like a spangled canopy above the vast grasslands, which would be desolate if not for the tall termite mound in the foreground. The hill glows with the bioluminescence of click beetle larvae, their fluorescent speckle looking for all the world like the stars' mirror.

But take a second glance at that foreground, just a little to the left, and you'll find a long-snouted lurker with some very clear expectations of his own. The anteater in the darkness is the star of the photograph — named The Night Raider in the animal's honor — and one of the reasons Marcio Cabral's photo won one category of the 2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.

Now, that anteater is also the reason he's losing the honor.

The Natural History Museum of London, which determines the winners of the annual prize, announced Friday that Cabral's photo has been disqualified for having the wrong stuff — or, to put it another way, the trouble is mostly that the photo has stuffing at all.

"Evidence was presented to the Museum by third parties that it is highly likely the animal in the awarded photograph is a taxidermy specimen," the museum said in a statement.

"After a thorough investigation," the statement continued, "the Museum concluded that the available evidence points to this allegation being true. As a result, the Museum believes that the image breaches the competition rules, which state that 'entries must not deceive the viewer or attempt to misrepresent the reality of nature.' "

They say a weeks-long investigation, prompted by anonymous tips and carried out by several scientists, found that the anteater in Cabral's image bears a striking resemblance to a taxidermy anteater displayed at one of the entrances to Brazil's Emas National Park, where he took his photograph. The resemblance is so striking, in fact, that the museum's investigators decided they had to be the same animal.

Take a look at the shot below and compare them for yourself.

Cabral did not immediately respond to NPR's request for comment.

But the museum noted in its statement that Cabral has roundly denied the allegation. In remarks to local Brazilian media when he won the award last October, he described the image as the product of three years of visiting the park, hoping for just the right conditions to catch the anteater in the act — and when he finally got the scene he wanted, he caught it in a single long-exposure photograph.

During the investigation, the museum says Cabral even produced a corroborating witness — whose testimony, it appears, was nevertheless not persuasive enough to convince investigators.

The museum says that it is vacating his win in the "animals in their environment" category and will not be replacing him with another winner. Because the names of the finalists were released last October, the museum explained, the judges can no longer render an objective decision.

"I find it disheartening and surprising that a photographer would go to such lengths to deceive the competition and its worldwide following," one of the judges, Roz Kidman Cox, said in Friday's statement.

"The competition places great store on honesty and integrity, and such a breach of the rules is disrespectful to the wildlife photography community, which is at the heart of the competition. This disqualification should remind entrants that any transgression of the rules and spirit of the competition will eventually be found out."

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