Thieves see av­o­ca­dos as ripe for the pick­ing

Po­lice are mak­ing good on a prom­ise that they will pros­e­cute avo­cado thieves. In the lat­est of a string of ar­rests a Gis­borne man has been ap­pre­hended.

The Orchardist - - Con­tents - By Kris­tine Walsh

A New Zealand po­lice spokesper­son says that shortly af­ter mid­night on Au­gust 21, they re­ceived a re­port that the Gis­borne bur­glary was in process and a man was caught as he was run­ning from the scene.

The 38-year-old was due to ap­pear in court on Septem­ber 11 on bur­glary charges but with a cou­ple of re­ported thefts in Gis­borne, another in Hawkes’ Bay, and four in the Bay of Plenty – and all of those in Au­gust alone – his ac­tiv­i­ties are just the tip of the ice­berg.

So po­lice are ask­ing that mem­bers of the pub­lic play a part in stamp­ing out a grow­ing black mar­ket by chal­leng­ing any­one sell­ing what could be stolen goods, ei­ther in a phys­i­cal out­let or via so­cial me­dia. And they re­mind re­tail­ers to be hyper-alert be­cause if they are caught sell­ing ill-got­ten gains, they could be charged with re­ceiv­ing stolen prop­erty which car­ries a max­i­mum penalty of seven years’ in prison.

Be­ing based in the avo­cado-rich re­gion of Bay of Plenty, Sergeant Trevor Brown knows all too well the im­pact thieves can have on grow­ers.

“In the three months to the end of July we had nine of­fences in our re­gion, and by the mid­dle of Au­gust there had been four more, so they are cer­tainly not iso­lated in­ci­dents.

“That said, we re­cently ap­pre­hended a group that we feel has been fairly ac­tive in our area so we’re hop­ing that is go­ing to have some im­pact on the level of of­fend­ing.” Mem­bers of the group had been park­ing in or near or­chards and strip­ping trees, throw­ing the fruit onto sleep­ing bags and du­vets be­fore bundling them into their ve­hi­cles, Mr Brown says.

“They were sell­ing them onto dairies and su­perettes, many of which we were able to iden­tify through a com­bi­na­tion of in­ves­ti­ga­tion and good feed­back from the pub­lic. If we are to put a stop to this sort of ac­tiv­ity, we have to make sure thieves don’t have an out­let.”

Bay of Plenty Po­lice had also ar­rested a cou­ple of in­di­vid­u­als ac­tive in avo­cado theft and Mr Brown says or­chardists have been a big help with that.

“We have got the word out there that they need to keep their eyes open and to note down reg­is­tra­tions of any sus­pi­cious-look­ing ve­hi­cles, and that height­ened aware­ness has been cru­cial.

“One of­fender was stopped within two min­utes of leav­ing the orchard gate and that's the sort of re­sult we need.”

All grow­ers needed to be vig­i­lant and even be­ing off the beaten track is no pro­tec­tion . . . there are re­ports of thieves us­ing tools like Google Earth to seek out po­ten­tial tar­gets.

“This is not just the petty theft of a few bits of fruit off your neigh­bour's tree . . . it is large-scale of­fend­ing that can have a real im­pact on an or­chardist's liveli­hood,” says Mr Brown, who cites the ex­am­ple of one grower who re­cently sold his Gis­borne block af­ter years of thefts.

“And it’s not just that. Many grow­ers live on their or­chards so there are is­sues of pri­vacy and se­cu­rity to be con­sid­ered as well.”

Grow­ers had gone to lengths like in­stalling cam­eras and alarm sys­tems to pro­tect them­selves and their pro­duce, but

Mr Brown says they should not con­front any­one they find on their prop­er­ties.

“Peo­ple can re­spond like trapped an­i­mals if they are cor­nered so that is def­i­nitely not some­thing we would rec­om­mend.

“Our ad­vice is to record the reg­is­tra­tion num­bers of any ve­hi­cles and get on the phone to the po­lice. Safety al­ways has to be the first pri­or­ity.”

The price of av­o­ca­dos sky­rock­eted this year and with tens of thou­sands more New Zealan­ders buy­ing the fruit – along with a snow­balling export mar­ket – they will con­tinue to be in hot de­mand, says Trevor Brown.

“The re­al­ity is that this fruit is worth a lot of money and as long as that is the case, there will be peo­ple who want to get their hands on them.

“But knowl­edge is power in terms of pre­vent­ing thefts so it is use­ful if or­chardists share in­for­ma­tion about what is work­ing for them, and there­fore might work for another.”

Avo­cado thieves at work in the United States.

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