Monitoring population productivity in the saiga antelope.
Effective conservation requires a good understanding of factors causing variation in population growth rate. We here analyse the relationship between female age and fecundity in the saiga antelope Saiga tatarica tatarica, a critically endangered ungulate of the Eurasian steppes and semideserts, at both individual and population levels. Annual variation in age structure and twinning rates was investigated using long-term datasets, sampling a total of 3308 females in four populations over more than 40 years. Further, a new non-invasive method is presented, estimating twinning rates from both calves and placentas encountered during calving aggregation transects. At an individual level, the most parsimonious model for twinning rates included three age classes (1, 2 and ≥3 years); however, the model with only two classes (1 and ≥2 years) was competitive and particularly useful for monitoring because these two age classes can reliably be determined by direct observation in the field. Among yearlings, 77.4% were fecund and 11.7% twinned, whereas among older females 94.6% were fecund and 72.6% twinned. At a population level, annual variation in age structure (proportion ≥2 years) correlated well with annual variation in twinning rate except in the north-west Pre-Caspian population. Our results suggest that the recent poaching-driven collapse in saiga numbers has potentially resulted in reductions in fecundity, which will have an impact on population growth rate. Our results highlight the potential for monitoring of twinning rate using non-invasive calving aggregation transects as a cost-effective additional tool to population counts for monitoring the status of this critically endangered species. These monitoring methods are also potentially transferable to other ungulate species.