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.
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.