The 'photo' was actually a merger of two images.

An award-winning photograph of a herd of endangered Tibetan antelopes apparently undisturbed by a passing train on the controversial Qinghai–Tibet railway has been exposed as a fake. The image was widely hailed in China as a symbol of harmonious co-existence between man and nature and strong testimony against any adverse effect of the new railway on the animals.

Photographer Liu Wei-qiang admitted the fabrication last week after comments on the Chinese online photography forum Without Fear questioned the picture's authenticity. Liu was promptly dismissed from the Daqing Evening News, based in Harbin, Heilongjiang province, where he was the deputy director of its photography department. The newspaper has also issued a public statement apologizing for the incident and announcing the resignation of its chief editor.

“The train was real, and so were the antelopes,” said Liu in a posting on the photography forum. “But the magic moment just didn't happen even after I had waited for two weeks.” Therefore, he decided to merge together one picture of a passing train with another of the migrating animals “to raise the public awareness of antelope protection”. The merged picture was published by more than 200 media outlets around the world and won Liu a bronze medal in the 2006 Most Influential News Photos of the Year competition, sponsored by CCTV, China's state television.

Yang Xin, president of Green River, a non-governmental environmental organization based in Chengdu, Sichuan province, met Liu on the Tibetan plateau in 2006. He says that he was surprised by the photographer's luck in seeing the train and animals passing on the same spot. “It is probably a one-in-a-thousand opportunity,” he said.

“The truth is probably the opposite of what the picture was trying to claim,” says Su Jian-ping, a zoologist at the Northwest Institute of Plateau Biology, Chinese Academy of Sciences, in Xining, Qinghai province. Su is sceptical of the government's claim that the railway has no impact on the antelopes' migration patterns. The antelopes are shy creatures and particularly prone to disturbances, he says, having spent years on the plateau studying their behaviour. There is no such a thing as “harmonious co-existence” between the train and antelopes, he adds. “You just don't see them together.”

Yang describes Liu's behaviour as “totally inexcusable”, and says that it has tainted the field of wildlife conservation. “Liu fabricated and supplied the image the government badly wanted to see, which may not have reflected the reality.”

The incident is not the first faked image to be used in the environmental arena. Last October, the Shanxi Forestry Department publicized two photographs of a South China tiger in the wild, which caused much excitement as the species had been considered functionally extinct. According to the verdicts of six experts in forensics and image verification, the pictures were fake, probably taken of a cardboard tiger planted in the woods. The farmer claiming to have taken the snaps stands by their authenticity, and the local government is yet to release the report of its own investigation.

“These are hardly isolated incidences,” say Qiu Ren-zong, an ethicist at the Institute of Philosophy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing. “China suffers from a serious lack of accountability with rampant fraud and corruption in its political, economic and academic life.” Real transparency and an effective check-and-balance system must be put in place if China is to move forward, he says.