Rare Antelope on Brink of Extinction, Scientists Say

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 25, 2003

Male saiga antelopes face a serious problem that threatens to push them over the brink of extinction: so many females, so little time.

The global population of this antelope, native to the steppes and deserts of Central Asia and the Pre-Caspian region of Europe, has fallen by 80 percent to approximately 50,000. In the mid-1970s, the peak population was more than 1,250,000. Of the saiga antelopes that remain, most are female.

The males simply cannot mate with enough females to maintain a viable population, said Eleanor Milner-Gulland, a conservation scientist at Imperial College London in England.

"The population is crashing at the moment, losing 50 percent of its individuals a year," she said. "This is a rapid trajectory towards extinction."

Milner-Gulland and colleagues from Russia and Kazakhstan published a report on the reproductive collapse of the saiga antelope (Saiga tatarica) in the March 13 issue of the journal Nature.

The primary reason for the collapse is over-hunting by rural communities that were economically devastated following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Rural farmers hunt both sexes of the three foot (one meter) tall antelopes to feed their families.

The animals have long noses and short, pointed antlers. Gangs of poachers zip around the countryside on motorcycles shooting the males for their horns, which sell for as much as U.S.$100 in China where they are used to treat heart disease, fever, stroke and other conditions.

The disproportionate hunting of the males for their horns has caused an imbalance of the sexes. Competition for the few males is now so fierce that dominant females actively push young, would-be mothers out of the picture. Such behavior in a harem-breeding species has never before been observed, said Milner-Gulland.

In 2002, the saiga antelope was listed as Critically Endangered by The World Conservation Union (IUCN) and listed on Appendix II of the Convention of Migratory Species. Conservationists argue that unless national anti-poaching laws are enforced, the species may be extinct within the next few years.

"At the end of the day, people will end up hunting saiga if there are no other options for them, so part of the answer also lies in ensuring that the people living closest to the saiga can recognize the need for their long-term protection," said Abigail Entwistle, a zoologist with Fauna & Flora International, a conservation organization in Cambridge, England.

Too Many Females

The saiga antelope once roamed the open lands of Europe and Central Asia from Ukraine to Mongolia in herds of up to 100,000 animals. Migrations covered up to 621 miles (1000 kilometers) between their summer and winter feeding grounds. A male antelope traditionally maintains a harem of 12 to 30 females.

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