Australian poachers set their sights on a juicy harvest

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 November, 2002, 12:00am

They are sweet, juicy and, unlike cattle or sheep, they do not put up a fight - mangoes are the latest target for highly organised gangs of poachers in Australia.

As farmers in Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia begin this year's harvest, thieves are launching night-time raids and stripping orchards of tens of thousands of dollars' worth of fruit.

Some farmers have resorted to hiring security guards to protect their crops.

'There are at least half a dozen around here who have taken on security guards,' said John Morton, chairman of the Burdekin District Mango Growers' Association, in northern Queensland.

'Three years ago I got hit really bad. They stole A$30,000 [HK$132,000] worth in a single night. Since then I've put up an electric fence round my orchards.'

So far, none of the poachers have been caught. Police have advised growers not to confront the thieves because they could be dangerous.

'We are not going to go up to them and be John Wayne,' Mr Morton said. 'The advice is to take their number plates and ring the local police station.'

Growers suspect that Asian gangs may be behind the raids because most of the mangoes are stolen while they are unripe. Green mangoes are a staple of many Southeast Asian dishes, from curries to salads.

One farmer said: 'It's not something you can say publicly, but that's what a lot of people suspect. Most of the raids seem to happen when the fruit is unripe.'

It is believed the stolen mangoes are loaded on to trucks and driven to markets in Sydney and Melbourne, where they fetch a high price.

Australia's ongoing drought means this year's crop will be smaller than usual, and a tray of 10 mangoes is selling for A$30.

'Prices are high at the moment,' said Peter McFarlane, a director of the Australian Mango Industry Association. 'If you are going to steal mangoes, this would be a good season to do it.'

The problem was so serious in the Northern Territory a few years ago that police set up a dedicated 'mango force', similar to anti-cattle rustling units set up in other parts of Australia.

While the two-man squad has since been disbanded, the poaching continues.

Jane Large, who owns a mango farm south of Darwin, said: 'The poachers just push fences down with their semi-trailers and load up.'

Farmers say a single night-time raid can cripple them financially. Glenda DiBella, who grows mangoes in Queensland, said: 'We only get paid once a year, when we harvest. It's the only income we have.'