Someone is stealing avocados in New Zealand. Not just picking a handful to make guacamole for a picnic, but driving up to orchards in the dark of night, using rakes to sweep hundreds from trees, collecting them in blankets and driving off to sell them illegally at road stands, grocery stores and small restaurants in Auckland, the country's largest city, according to police.

The problem appears to be one of surging demand and short supply, avocado industry officials say. Traditionally, the soft green pears have been grown largely for export, but local consumers have been rapidly acquiring a taste for them -- just as heavy rainfall in neighboring Australia badly damaged last year's harvest. As a result, the price has more than tripled, reaching as high as $4 per avocado ($6 in New Zealand dollars) and fueling a spate of stealth robberies by enterprising thieves.

"It's an easy way to make a quick buck, but I don't think we are dealing with a sophisticated or highly organized operation here, more opportunistic," Jen Scoular, chief executive officer of New Zealand's avocado association, was quoted as saying in the Guardian on Wednesday. Officials said there have been dozens of thefts. In the most recent incident, police said, midnight bandits liberated 350 avocados from an orchard in the Bay of Plenty area on the country's north island.

Police warned that anyone handling or eating the purloined pears may be facing a health risk, because those that have been recently sprayed with pesticides could carry toxins on their skins. No violenfce or confrontations have been reported in connection with the crime wave, but Scoular said many growers are installing automatic light and alarm systems to protect their lucrative crops.

New Zealand is far better known for exporting apples and kiwis, and its avocado production is dwarfed by giants such as Mexico, which exports more than 1.3 million metric tons per year. But its avocados have been gaining popularity both at home and abroad, Scoular said, with Australia and the United States as the largest foreign customers and 96,000 new domestic households purchasing them last year.

She told the BBC that marketing the "amazingness of avocados" as well as their health benefits has created a demand the country cannot meet -- and a ripe target for pear pinchers.

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