Mysterious tree thieves uproot unique specimen in Australia

Jeff Knispel finished planting 205 citrus trees on Tuesday, November 2. That Saturday, he noticed his trees had been stolen.

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Knispel grows citrus in the Riverland region of South Australia, a couple of hours northeast of Adelaide. He’s joint managing director of the Nippy’s Group, a family business that has been producing fruit juice since the 1930s.

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The theft was obviously premeditated. “It might have been the case that preparation of this piece of land was visible for several weeks, which might have given the perpetrators a bit of a warning that trees were going to get planted,” said Knispel, as reported by ABC News Australia. It’s a big mystery. Where did the thief turn around and plant 205 trees? “They would have to be in a position where they could do something immediately with the trees because unless they’re watered or in the ground and water, or back into pots, they’ll die in 48 hours or so.”

To add to the intrigue, these weren’t ordinary citrus trees. They were a new, distinct strain developed in a research center and worth $6,000. The thieves probably don’t even know what type of citrus tree they’ve stolen. And Knispel is not telling. “If they plan to sell the plants at a growers’ market or a nursery and they don’t know the variety, it won’t help their cause,” said Knispel, as reported by The Guardian. “They don’t know if it’s a mandarin … or an orange. Or a Valencia or a navel.”

The leaves of the purloined trees have a different shape than other citrus leaves. And their distinct DNA could be detected. But first, someone would have to find the trees. If the thieves manage to nurture a hidden grove until the trees mature enough to produce fruit — three to five years — the citrus will probably go untraced.

The tree theft is a new one to Mark Doecke, chair of Citrus SA, which represents South Australian citrus growers. “In my career as a grower I’ve never heard of trees being stolen, I’ve never heard of trees being stolen out of the ground, let alone after they’ve been planted,” said Doecke, as reported by ABC News Australia. “The trees themselves are worth thousands of dollars, and a couple of years of lost production, its hard to put a number on that.”

Via ABC News Australia, The Guardian