Week in, week out

William Hartston reveals how God foiled a plot by American-Italians to corner the market in pineapples using elephant dung
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The Independent Online
God did not appear on television this week. Italian men are having to be taught how to seduce women. The clocks go forward tonight. It has been a terrible week for elephants. To any casual browser of this week's news, those stories may seem unconnected. Yet a deeper analysis of the issues behind them suggests some compelling links.

Let us start with the elephants. On Monday, a burned carcass of a wild elephant was found in Thailand, a suspected victim of the simmering war between elephants and pineapple-growers. Police are looking for suspects who may have been involved in the elephant's death. Every dry season, the pineapple farmers face problems with marauding elephants. As their own food supply dwindles, the beasts come lumbering out of the forest in the evenings to pinch pineapples from farms situated on their former feeding grounds. In this El Nino- ravaged year, the drought has been particularly bad and farmers have been setting nail-studded traps to keep the elephants away or disable them.

Only last October, however, the Lost Gardens of Heligan in Cornwall grew their first pineapple for more than 150 years. It was reared in a long- neglected pineapple pit on the heat from horse manure. If you can grow a decent pineapple in Cornwall on horse manure, just think what you could do with elephant dung in Thailand. Surely a mutually beneficial deal could be struck between the elephants and farmers to swap fruit for manure?

Perhaps they could try this tusk-tie-up on the Ivory Coast, which - as our story overleaf explains - moves closer to Gatwick this weekend. And just along the west African coast in Nigeria this week, elephants have been frightening villagers in the town of Yankari by coming close to people's homes and chewing on the baobab trees. Thanks to anti-poaching efforts, the elephant population in the area has doubled in the past 10 years, but conservationists are worried about the growing tension between elephants and villagers. "There are no community awareness programmes," Briton Aaron Nicholas of the Nigerian Conservation Foundation told Reuters on Thursday. "The communities get no benefits from the elephants and no benefits from the park."

The growing Nigerian elephant population may seem an innocent enough story as it stands, yet on the very same day came a report from Italy that the Socio-Psychological Institute in the city of Udine is offering two-day courses in seduction for 300,000 lire (pounds 100). Italian men, apparently, are facing a crisis because they no longer know how to seduce women. What, you may ask, has this to do with elephants? For the final link we must go back to 19 December 1996. That fateful day marked the first death by herpes of an African elephant. The herpes virus had long been common among Asian elephants, but this fatality in Oakland Zoo, California, was the first in the African species. Oakland zoo-keepers were said to be "at a loss to explain" how he had contracted the virus, although an Asian elephant had not long before died from herpes at the same zoo.

Everything suddenly fits: is it really so far-fetched to suggest that the Italians had been surreptitiously practising their seduction teaching methods on elephants before risking them on humans? The African elephant had become an expert in seduction, but paid for his expertise with his life, after picking up herpes from an Asian conquest. With the passage of time, all Nigerian elephants have become experts at seduction, which is why their population has been growing so rapidly. And all because the Italian-Americans wanted to corner the world market in pineapples by securing unlimited supplies of elephant dung.

The elephantine herpes, however, may be seen as divine retribution, because 1996 was also the year when milk supplies ran out in northern India as the Hindu faithful took gallons of the stuff to a statue of the elephant god Ganesh, which had supposedly been seen drinking milk.

And that may provide the link with the other major story of the week: the non-arrival, on Channel 18 in the United States, of God. According to Hon-Ming Chen, leader of a 150-member Taiwanese spiritual sect, God was to have appeared on television immediately after midnight on Wednesday morning to announce that he would descend to earth next week, at 10am on 31 March in the Dallas suburb of Garland. So certain were the sect, that many members, including Chen himself, had bought up property in the Garland area. When the television programmes proceeded as normal, Chen emerged from his home to tell reporters he had been wrong. "Since God's appearance on television has not been realised," he said through an interpreter, "you can take what we have preached as nonsense. I would rather you don't believe what I say any more." He does, however, still believe that God will descend to earth to save hundreds of millions of people from a nuclear holocaust in 1999 by taking them to another planet in flying saucers.

But what if he was watching for the wrong god? Perhaps, with all this pineapple business and the Nigerian elephant over-population crisis, it was Ganesh they should have been expecting. And perhaps they got the time wrong. If an Indian elephant god makes a tryst to meet a Taiwanese sect in America, the timing of the appointment is a potential source of great misunderstanding. Especially in the week the clocks change. Did anyone spot an elephant on American television last Tuesday night, I wonder?