Organised crime in South Africa has a new field of business: Avocados, a trade so lucrative due to the fruit's boom in popularity that they are now known as "green gold".
For Zander Ernst, the biggest fear is that the situation will escalate and people will die in the bitter struggle for the fruit.
Sleeves rolled up, the South African farmer trudges through seemingly endless rows of trees heavy with lush, ripe avocados. In Tzaneen's hilly landscape, business is blooming, ready for export to Europe.
Allesbeste, the name of Ernst's family business, is one of the largest avocado farms in South Africa. It looks idyllic – if you ignore the metre-high electric fences and barbed wire surrounding the plantation. At night, the area is patrolled by private security services to prevent criminal gangs from stealing the precious fruit.
Cartel-like structures are already forming, says Ernst.
He says if farmers don't protect themselves, these gangs will steal the whole avocado harvest in a single night.
South Africa is one of the top 10 avocado exporters in the world.
The country is expected to export 66, 000 tonnes in 2021 alone, according to Derek Donkin, head of the Subtropical Growers' Association in South Africa. He can't put a number on the industry's losses due to theft this year, saying merely that they are high.
A study by the association showed a loss of about US$1.9mil (RM7.82mil) in 2018 for the Tzaneen region alone.
Ernst's experience suggests that the gangs have become more organised over the past three years. A few months ago, 10ha of avocado trees on the farm next door were picked clean, the equivalent of 150 tonnes, according to Ernst's calculations. A kilo of avocados sells for €8 (RM40) to €12 (RM60) in Europe.
Thieves usually come in the early morning, digging tunnels under electric fences or wading through rivers that border the plantation. They rip the fruit from the trees and shove it in sacks hidden in advance nearby, in operations planned with military precision.
Another member will pick up the avocados and bring them to the nearest road, where someone loads them up and drives them away.
Unlike the theft of macadamia nuts, for example, avocado gangs have yet to discover the possibilities offered by exporting the stolen wares. Instead, gang members pack the fruit into crates and nets that are typically used in the industry, working hastily in locations that frequently change. The avocados then wind up in local supermarkets or street stalls, in what is still a lucrative business.
To keep losses low, Allesbeste manager Patrick Kjashuane is on duty around the clock. When a call comes in the middle of the night from his security team, reporting movement on the pitch-black plantation, he leaps up and rushes down the bumpy sandy roads.
Sometimes he'll encounter one or two gang members – but it's tough, he says, as they are fast and good at hiding in the dense avocado trees, making it literally like looking for a needle in a haystack.
One time he managed to catch two men and bring them to the police station. In the weeks that followed, he headed to the station four times to find out when he would see the thieves in court.
But each time, he was turned away by the police.
Finally, an officer told him that the men had been released – having paid an administrative fine. Kjashuane blames corruption. All he can do is protect his farm as best as he can. Allesbeste now spends up to €100, 000 (RM498, 876) a year on security measures to protect the avocados.
The situation has become more challenging in recent months, however, driving some plantation owners to arm their security guards and invest in sniffer dogs. Unlike other plantations in Tzaneen, however, the security personnel at Allesbeste are not armed.
"I am afraid that this will build up, that the gangs will come to our farm armed as well. I'm not going to defend my crop with guns," says Ernst. He doesn't want people to die for avocados, he says. – dpa