An award-winning photo showing antelopes playing in Tibet has been exposed as a scam, after Chinese web users discovered it had been doctored in Photoshop.

China's state-run news agency, Xinhua, issued a grovelling apology earlier this week after publishing the manipulated photo of Tibetan wildlife playing near a high-speed train, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Roof of the world

Back in 2006, a wildlife photographer from the Daqing Evening News was sent off to Tibet to capture the then-latest Chinese engineering achievement, the £2 billion Qinghai-Xizang railway. Dubbed the ‘roof of the world’, the Chinese railway transports passengers to 16,000 feet. It crosses 1,200 miles of rugged terrain to connect the rest of China to the remote Tibetan plateau.

Environmentalists had attacked the railway – which has been very popular with tourists and other travellers – since construction stage. The concern was primarily that the railway would threaten the breeding grounds of the chiru, an endangered antelope species found mainly in China.

After the train service opened, Xinhua published a photograph showing dozens of antelope running peacefully across the vast Tibetan landscape, just as a gleaming silver train rushes past beside them.

Photographer Liu Weiqing’s photo series won multiple awards, and the antelope picture was declared a top 10 photo of the year by CCTV, China's state-run television network. "I wanted to capture the harmony among the Tibetan antelope, the train, men and nature," Weiqing said of his photo.

Expert views

However, antelope experts weren’t convinced. "I was really shocked when I first saw the photo," Yang Xin, of antelope protection group Green River, told the WSJ.

Xin said many of the antelope in the picture appeared to be pregnant and there were no young with the herd. In June, when the photo was supposedly taken, many antelope would have already given birth.

And after it was blown up to poster size and featured on the Beijing underground network, anonymous Chinese web user ‘Dajiala’ raised questions about the photo's authenticity. Dajiala’ was studying a copy of the photo when he rubbed some dust off it and noticed something odd.

Stitching images

"At the bottom of the photograph, there was a very obvious line," he wrote on his blog. "I examined it very carefully and it was obviously the stitching of two different images... Was this decisive moment just a simple Photoshop trick?"

Following the posting, photographers blew up the image and analysed each pixel in detail. Animal experts weighed in, explaining that antelope are shy and sensitive to noise, and would rather die than stand next to a high-speed train.

As the online debate raged, the photographer and his editor were challenged and subsequently resigned after issuing an apology. No one knows why Weiqing chose to manipulate his photo, or whether he was pressurised into it. His award has since been revoked and several news agencies have apologised for publishing the photo.