Female saiga antelopes are sexually mature at eight months of age, males at 20 months. Normally, the antelopes live six to ten years.
Scientists assumed that in polygynous systems the males are able to secure the viability of the population by mating with as many females as possible. Milner-Gulland and her colleagues report that there is a point at which the males cannot keep up.
"In November 2000 there were 106 females for every adult male, which was clearly too many for the males to handle," said Milner-Gulland. Although the scientists do not know exactly where the breaking point is, their study puts it somewhere between 36 - where the antelope managed to mate successfully - and 106 - where they did not.
This unexpected reproductive collapse, compounded with the over-hunting of both sexes for their meat, forecasts an uncertain future for the saiga antelope.
"The species is adapted to a boom-bust population cycle, and has gone through population crashes previously, however the research by Dr. Milner-Gulland and her colleagues suggest that if the reproductive rate is undermined the possibility for future recovery may be undermined," said Entwistle.
Conservationists point out that the rise of the Soviet Union in the early 20th century and a strict ban imposed on hunting allowed the saiga antelope to recover from a similar population crash during the 19th century. This may auger well for the saiga antelope population today.
Fauna & Flora International is working with Milner-Gulland and her colleagues to secure funding for an initiative to restore a viable population of saiga antelope in central Kazakhstan. The population was over 500,000 but is now just 4,000 animals.
"The main issue is enforcement as most of the laws are in place to protect the species in its natural ranges," said Entwistle. "However, protecting a species that ranges over such large areas is logistically very difficult."
To do this, the conservationists are asking the international community to fund the establishment of mobile anti-poaching units to deter illegal hunting and provide educational outreach to the local communities.
"A relatively small injection of cash and support for local law enforcement agencies could go a long way towards saving this species" said Milner-Gulland.
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