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Science
NATURAL DESPOTS
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Michael Portillo joins the BBC Natural History Unit to discover the world of animal despotism
Monday 3 & 10 December 2100 - 2130

In animal societies, despots are less about leadership and more about the use and abuse of power. With this in mind, Michael finds it impossible not to draw comparisons with leadership in human societies.

Recording meerkats in the Kalahari
Michael Portillo with Professor Tim Clutton-Brock in the Kalahari Desert

Michael Portillo goes in search of natural despots and finds them in some surprising places. Meerkats have the reputation of being cute, timid animals. Their social structure, however, is much more sinister. Over millions of years evolution has honed these animals to find a group solution to surviving the rigours of desert life in South Africa.
Michael with meerkat on his shoulder
In the Kalahari desert Michael meets a group of  meerkats. There is one lead female - the despot. She is a serial killer who will eat her grandchildren to keep control of the group.

She exerts such power that only she and her chosen male mate and reproduce. All the others co-operate with her in order to survive. Michael discovers how one particular animal rises to power and why others tolerate such a heavy hand. Without the group, they will all die, but living communally means that some individuals can dominate.

Michael investigates the power struggles between baboon males and reveals how termite workers rise up against their queen despot.

Then there is the inevitable comparison with human society and the point where leadership becomes despotism...

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