'Con game' fools the Baron who thought he shot trophy stag

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The Independent Online

For Baron Eberhard von Gemmingen-Hornberg, it was a trophy hunter's dream come true: deep in the Bulgarian countryside last year a single shot from the German aristocrat's rifle brought a giant stag of unprecedented proportions toppling stone dead to the forest floor.

The magnificent beast weighed more than 300kg and bore a huge crown of tree-like antlers on its head made up of no less than 37 branches. The trophy was enough to enable the Baron to claim that he had achieved a new world hunting record.

The Baron's exploits were feted in the German and international hunting press, who vied with each other to document the extraordinary features of the slain stag. Never, it seemed, had any hunter managed to bag such a creature.

Yesterday, however, it emerged that Baron Gemmingen-Hornberg's trophy was no roaring wild stag of the Bulgarian beech forests but rather a tame, chocolate-loving red deer raised in an Austrian game reserve. The animal had been deliberately fed calcium tablets to enhance the growth of its antlers.

"The stag's name was Burlei, he was completely tame and children liked to feed him chocolate," the animal's former owner, Rudolf Pöttinger, told Spiegel television.

The series of events that led the Baron to be duped started in the summer of last year. Mr Pöttinger, the owner of a 53-acre game reserve in southern Austria, received an offer of €20,000 (£13,500) for Burlei and promptly sold the animal to two game dealers.

Within a month the stag was roaming hunting estate forests run by a Bulgarian organisation called Elen Hunting, which has its headquarters near the town of Etropole. Anxious to find a wealthy marksman with a yen for huge stags, the company began to spread news of Burlei's whereabouts.

The Baron heard of the stag from a Serbian wildlife documentary film-maker and, after paying a total of €65,000 for the privilege, he flew to Sofia in late August last year with his gun and a team of cameramen.

Accompanied by a game keeper and two film-makers, the Baron caught up with Burlei as the animal was grazing in a clearing. Undaunted by the fact that the supposedly wild stag failed to run away as the team approached, he raised his rifle and shot it dead.

In the months that followed, the Baron was pictured in hunting magazines worldwide with his trophy of antlers. "I had never seen anything so magnificent and, of course, I never remotely dreamed that I would have the chance of bagging such a stag," he was quoted as saying.

His triumph was shattered after photographs of Burlei grazing in his former home appeared on the internet. An Austrian police investigation established that the animal was indeed the tame red deer and that it had been fed calcium to enhance the growth of its antlers.

Baron Gemmingen-Hornberg's attempts to sue the culprits for fraud proved fruitless as police were unable to identify the Bulgarian middle men who supplied the hunting estate with the stag. The Baron, who insists that he wishes to forget the affair, was not available for comment yesterday. His world hunting record has been annulled.

Spiegel television said he had instructed his domestic staff to put Burlei's antlers in the cellar of his country house.