LAKE CHIVERO, Zimbabwe — Illegal fishing can be hazardous in Zimbabwe, where poachers scan the banks for armed rangers and the water for crocodiles while they cast their rods.
The country is in such a dire economic state that thousands of people, unable to find regular work, flock to Lake Chivero in hopes of catching fish, mostly bream, to sell for desperately needed income. The lake, nearly 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Harare, provides most of the drinking water for Zimbabwe's capital.
"There are no jobs out there," said a fish poacher who identified herself only as Miriam. "We will starve to death if we stay at home, so it's better to battle the guards and crocodiles here."
Miriam, who insisted on anonymity because she feared arrest, said she has poached fish at the lake for decades. However, the number of illegal fishers is swelling because of Zimbabwe's ongoing economic problems, she said. That's despite the death of a poacher who was shot by national park guards in April.
Zimbabwe is suffering from low investment, company closures and political uncertainty over who will eventually succeed 90-year-old President Robert Mugabe, whose wife, Grace, has shaken up national politics by harshly criticizing Vice President Joice Mujuru.
The succession squabbles are hurting efforts to revive the economy, said Rugare Gumbo, a spokesman for Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party, in a statement this week.
"Our focus has shifted from our core business of the government," he said this week. "The ugly truth is that many of our people are struggling to make ends meet."
Factional politics matter little at Lake Chivero, where children play on the rocks while older siblings and parents spend hours on end neck-deep in the lake, or on rickety boats. The bolder ones go deep under with nets in hopes of scoring a catch that might help pay the bills.
"It's $10 on a good day. Remember, our customers are also struggling," said fish poacher Tendai, who refused to give his last name for fear of arrest.
Those intending to fish legally at Lake Chivero are given permits and directed to fishing areas. But poachers say it is cumbersome and costly to get permission. Fish poachers also operate at other lakes, and they sometimes invade farms to fish.
Some illegal catches from Lake Chivero end up for sale at White House, a nearby marketplace. Despite frequent police raids, under-the-table trade bustles at such venues as Zimbabweans struggle to put food on the table.