Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Corruption in the animal kingdom?

In his new series on Africa, the first episode of which was broadcast tonight on BBC1, David Attenborough recounted a case which I think qualifies as corruption in the animal kingdom.  In the Kalahari desert, the Drongo bird has come to occupy a position vis a vis the meerkat community which, if not exactly a ‘public office’, at least qualifies as entrusted power.  The drongo emits a call when an eagle circles overhead, warning that meerkats that they are in danger.  But the drongo has learned to fake danger, sounding the alarm when there is no eagle in sight so as to send the meerkats running and meanwhile swoop in and steal their abandoned prey (tasty caterpillars and crunchy scorpions).  Indeed, the drongo has even learned to fake the alarm call of the meerkat sentries, giving added credibility to its warnings.  This means that the drongo is abusing its position of trust with the meerkat community, in order to benefit itself. 

Two other interesting points for anti-corruption policies though.  Attenborough tells us that the drongo only cheats – or in my terms, acts corruptly – when times are hard and it really needs the food.  This is reminiscent of the much-heard argument that petty corruption on the part of public officials may come as a necessary response to their own poverty.  What’s more, it highlights the way that parties can sometimes live with a certain amount of corruption because the corrupt official provides some form of protection which is, on balance or in the long term, desirable.  Patron-client relations often work like this and seem like they might provide a good model for this aspect of the drongo-meerkat relationship.  

Comments - especially from zoologists - most welcome!

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