Once found roaming the grasslands of Central Asia and pre-Caspian in vast herds, the global population of saiga antelope has crashed to 50,000 over the past 10 years - five per cent of its previous size. The population decline has been driven by the collapse of the Soviet Union, which reopened its strict borders allowing the animals to be hunted for their meat and for the male's horns.
The researchers from the UK, Russia and Kazakhstan collected data on saiga population dynamics in Kalmykia, Russia between 1992-2002. They found that changes in population density or climatic variation did not account for the drop in the number of offspring. The researchers concluded that the heavily skewed sex ratio must be the driving force behind the antelopes decline.
However, according to Dr Milner-Gulland, all may not be lost. Historical data suggest a similar population crash occurred at the beginning of the 20th Century, also as a result of over hunting. The rise of the Soviet regime closed the country's borders and a strict ban was imposed on hunting, which allowed the population to recover.
"This indicates the species is very resilient. If the population has rebounded before we hope it can do it again," she said.
"Our findings have important implications for conservation of the antelope and other polygynous ungulates such as deer and wildebeest."
"There is only one viable herd in captivity and the species is difficult to breed because of their nomadic existence and diet in the wild. Efforts must be focused on involving rural people in conservation and providing resources to train and equip local law enforcement agents."