A cold-blooded killer is on the loose. His name is Gustave. He's 20 feet long (6 meters), weighs 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms), and stands accused of devouring hundreds of people. Writer Michael McRae and photographer Bobby Model travel to war-torn Burundi to confront the man-eater.
Patrice Faye is standing on the west bank of Burundi's Rusizi River with binoculars raised to his eyes.
"Quatre metres," the 52-year-old French expatriate says nonchalantly as he sizes up a 13-foot-long (4-meter-long) Nile crocodile basking on a sandbar 50 yards (46 meters) away. It's a wiltingly hot day at the end of the dry season in central Africa, and the muddy Rusizi, though diminished in height and volume, is still racing toward its rendezvous with Lake Tanganyika, a mile downstream.
Faye has been studying Burundi's crocodiles for two decades and has seen countless individuals of this size. The bull is about 25 years old and weighs roughly 500 pounds (227 kilograms)—just average for a young adult male of the species, yet still capable of inflicting tremendous harm on man or beast.
This croc isn't the creature that Faye is looking for, however. Like Captain Ahab, the self-taught naturalist is preoccupied with one monster in particular: Gustave, the largest, most fabled crocodile in all of Africa—a demonic Loch Ness Monster of incredible proportions and, according to legend, appetite.
Gustave is reputed to have devoured hundreds of villagers, snatching them from the banks of the Rusizi and the northeastern shores of Lake Tanganyika. Faye estimates that the massive croc measures 20 feet (6 meters) long, weighs one ton (907 kilograms), and is 60 years old (wild crocs, on average, live to age 45). Trained herpetologists agree that Gustave could be that large and that he is certainly one of the most infamous man-eaters of all time. But Faye's assertion that Gustave kills for sport—knocking off villager after villager like some killing machine—leaves skeptics clearing their throats.
I've come to Burundi to suss out the myths and realities surrounding Gustave, and, hopefully, to document the end of his alleged bloody rampage. With me are photographer Bobby Model and French film director Vincent Munie. Along with Faye, an able storyteller who after six years of sleuthing knows more about Gustave than anyone, the three of us make up an advance search team. Our mission is to track down Gustave; he is still on the loose but has been sighted as recently as three weeks ago. We have five days to locate him before the arrival of our colleague Brady Barr, the world record holder for croc wrangling—3,000 captured in 15 years.
Barr hosts the National Geographic Channel's Crocodile Chronicles, and he's no croc cowboy in the style of Steve Irwin, the Aussie "Crocodile Hunter." Barr's credentials include a doctorate in biology and the distinction of being the only researcher to have bagged all 23 species of crocodilians. Once we locate Gustave, Barr will attempt to collar the accused killer and force him to dry land.
Then, he'll poke and prod and attach a tracking device to Gustave before releasing him. In less than an hour with the captive croc, Barr hopes to collect the data he needs to answer a multitude of important questions about the size, age, genetics, and, ultimately, the feeding behavior of one of the few behemoth specimens of the Nile crocodile left in the wild. If Barr's tracking device reveals Gustave to be a serial killer of humans, he can be brought into captivity for the rest of his days.
Barr has had Gustave on his wanted list for years but hasn't gone after him because he considered the risks too great—not of being eaten himself, although that remains a real possibility, but of becoming a casualty of Burundi's civil war. Three years ago, when he first weighed capturing Gustave, mortar shells were raining down on Bujumbura, Burundi's capital.
Hutu insurgents have been battling Burundi's Tutsi-dominated government since 1993 in a conflict based on tribal animosities similar to those that fueled the infamous genocide in neighboring Rwanda. But while Rwanda is now touted as a model of national healing, Burundi's wounds still bleed.
Early last year, however, there appeared to be a lull in the fighting. All but one Hutu faction had reconciled with the government, and national elections were scheduled for October. The timing of our expedition seemed right. Barr chose late September, when the dry-season heat and low water would render cold-blooded Gustave torpid and easier to spot.
Still, I was under no illusion that our mission to locate this rumored weapon of mass destruction would be a slam dunk. Finding one crocodile among thousands, even one as conspicuous as Gustave, promised to be as confounding as finding Osama bin Laden. After living in and traveling through Africa for 20 years, I also knew enough to be wary of crocs, especially aggressive ones. River-running friends had chilled me with stories about territorial crocs deflating rafts and capsizing canoes on Ethiopia's Abay (Blue Nile) and Omo Rivers. In Kenya, I'd watched the slaughter as migrating wildebeests leaped into rivers, only to be caught between waiting jaws. I'd read the literature of African exploration, which is replete with gruesome croc attacks, usually fatal.
Yet the questions about this legendary beast proved as compelling to me as to a herpetologist like Barr or a passionate conservationist like Faye: Precisely how big was Gustave and how old? Had humans really become his preferred prey or were his murderous ways more myth than reality? If he was devouring villagers, what should be done with him? How had such a reportedly voracious man-eater survived so long without being shot and killed? How would we track down such an elusive beast?
This last question became a major concern in the run-up to our expedition, as Gustave kept evading the spotters that Faye had hired and trained to track him. He changed locations frequently—in the Rusizi delta one month, along the beaches of Bujumbura the next—vanishing for weeks in between. Faye had told us to relax. He was certain that the cunning old bull would return to his favorite haunts in the delta. We'd be there waiting for him.
In the months before traveling to Burundi, I scoured the news for information on Gustave. Most of what I turned up resembled the billboard slogans of a B-horror flick: that Gustave was the world's biggest known crocodile (saltwater crocs grow larger), that he stalks the dreams of village children, that he had killed as many as 300 people—including the wife of the Russian ambassador to Burundi. Munie's documentary contained jaw-dropping footage of Gustave, who appeared to have the girth of a killer whale and teeth the size of railroad spikes, but the show was thin on science and long on drama. The English-language version that premiered last May on PBS was even misleadingly titled Capturing the Killer Croc. The ill-fated, titanic trap that Faye had designed and built in the documentary—32 feet long (10 meters), seven feet (2 meters) wide, and five feet (1.5 meters) high—was a "folly," as he readily admitted, and Gustave had avoided it.
It wasn't until I arrived and spoke with Faye that I learned the fuller story of the mythical killer. We sat in the living room of his modest house in Bujumbura, where bookshelves sagged under the weight of an extensive natural history library and every surface was littered with artifacts and memorabilia: croc and hippo skulls, carved masks, Pygmy knives, mounted spiders and beetles, and dog-eared research papers. Faye's pet crane wandered freely, but his most prized animals—Gabon vipers, spitting cobras, and several small crocs—were caged outside.
Through a translator, Faye recounted his investigation of Gustave. In 1998 he first heard reports of a man-eating crocodile from commercial fishermen who freedive the croc-infested waters of Lake Tanganyika for cichlids, a prized aquarium species that can fetch up to $150 per fish in U.S. and European markets. Faye hires these men occasionally to supply specimens for a natural history museum and park in Bujumbura, the Musée Vivant, that he has helped restore.
"My fishermen were dismayed," he explained. "They told me that a colleague had been eaten by an enormous crocodile. The fishermen recognized the croc; it came around sometimes, disappeared for a few years, and then came back to kill again."
Faye took out a license to hunt and kill the culprit and began following his trail of terror up and down Lake Tanganyika. The chief in Kabezi village told him of four deaths and two disappearances. "Witnesses spoke of a large crocodile, larger than a hippo," Faye said. "Three months later, I heard of 17 more deaths. One was a 15-year-old student taken away in sight of all. Soldiers fired their Kalashnikovs at the croc but said that it swallowed the bullets."
Government officials and police authorities provided Faye with records of crocodile attacks going back to 1987 for the region surrounding Magara, Kanyosha, and Minago—the three villages along the northeastern shore of Lake Tanganyika where the majority of the attacks had occurred. The attacks happened in cycles, with a series of victims taken in rapid succession between the months of October and February, and then nothing for three years. In each instance, authorities blamed an enormous crocodile for the rampage.
At that point, all Faye had was a list of victims and stories about a huge crocodile. But which huge crocodile? The answer came on one of Faye's frequent visits to Rusizi National Park, during the spring of 1999. The park's senior guide, Habonimana Ladislas, told Faye that the park's biggest crocodile had recently reappeared after a six-month absence. Faye knew this creature; it was the fatter of two immense bulls living in the park. Whenever it was around, the thinner bull gave up its territory in the river and moved into an estuary near the town of Gatumba. Faye had already named the submissive croc Gatumba and the dominant one Gustave.
"I asked to see Ladislas's reports on the presence and absence of crocodiles," Faye said. "They showed that each of Gustave's absences from the delta corresponded directly with a period of attacks along the lakeshore."
Having fingered the giant Gustave as the killer, Faye's desire for exacting revenge waned. He now began envisioning the croc as a kind of genetic wellspring, capable of reinvigorating a flagging population of Rusizi crocs. Nile crocodiles throughout Africa were heavily hunted during the colonial era for sport and profit. Bounties were paid for croc carcasses and, in some countries, even for eggs. During the 1940s, '50s and '60s, officials routinely ignored hunting quotas, and some commercial hunters bagged more than a dozen crocs every night to sell the meat and skins.
Big bulls of Gustave's age and size were exceptionally rare then and are even rarer now; perhaps a single massive individual in every 100,000 was lucky enough to survive the onslaught. These supercrocs are the strongest, fittest (in terms of reproductive success), and most cunning, and their genes are vital to maintaining the gene pool of a population that, because of the widespread poaching, has likely lost its genetic diversity. Faye pictured Gustave living out his years as a captive breeder—the top stud of the Rusizi.
Faye approached financial backers about his plan, gave interviews, and spoke publicly. Gustave's renown spread to the far corners of the republic and beyond. But it wasn't until the Burundians (an 85 percent Hutu population) chose the nickname "Gustave" for the country's then president, the ruthless former army major Pierre Buyoya (a Tutsi), that Faye came to believe his crusade to save the giant croc might stand a chance of succeeding. "That," he recalls today, "was the launching of the legend of Gustave."
An eccentric self-described "man of the bush," Patrice Faye arrived in Burundi with long hair and a beard in 1978, pedaling a five-speed bike someone had given him in South Africa. Prior to that, he'd hitchhiked through Canada, the U.S., Central America, and Africa, taking odd jobs and living on nothing. When he reached Burundi, the road-weary vagabond found cosmopolitan Bujumbura, the verdant mountains surrounding it, and, especially, the windsurfing on Lake Tanganyika all to his liking. He quit roaming, found construction work in the capital, and married a Rwandan refugee.
Though settled, Faye hasn't lost his thrill-seeking spirit. When he first uncovered Gustave's murderous identity, he decided to get as close to the vicious croc as possible. A framed photo in his living room reveals how close that was: Faye snapped the shot from about six feet behind Gustave's tail; looking at the photo, I can count the scales on the monster's broad back.
That was one of Faye's closest encounters. He has tracked the croc ever since and is confident that Gustave is an almost preternatural predator with a pronounced inclination toward human flesh. Gustave's exact victim count is unknown and unverifiable; some researchers well-versed in the ways of man-eating crocs, including our capture man Brady Barr, doubt that a lone individual could be responsible for such carnage. But in every cluster of attacks that Faye has investigated, witnesses have described the same enormous croc with a distinctive dark scar on top of its head. Faye thinks this could be a scar from an old bullet wound.
Like other crocs, Gustave tends to feast on those parts of his victims that are most easily torn off. "Generally, the bodies are not entirely devoured," Faye says. "The legs, abdomens, arms, and heads are usually missing—only the victims' torsos remain." When Gustave goes on a feeding binge, he's a glutton, consuming several victims in just a few days.
Crocodiles do not need to overeat to survive. Studies of captive crocs have shown that after devouring ten pounds (4.5 kilograms) of meat in one sitting, they will digest the meal for the next two weeks. After consuming a large animal such as a wildebeest, a wild croc might not hunt again for a month or more. And if food is unavailable, crocs can stop the production of stomach acid (essentially slowing down their metabolisms) and survive for up to a year until conditions improve. Even in that motionless state, they remain alert, sentient, ready to attack.
While crocs don't require much to sustain themselves, they will readily ingest whatever meals come their way. "A croc will eat five pounds (2 kilograms) of meat a day if it's offered," says John Brueggen, deputy director of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park in Florida, the only zoo in the world with every species of crocodilian on display, "And those extra calories go straight to growth." Under optimal conditions, a gluttonous 60-year-old Nile croc that had eaten enough over its lifetime could certainly reach Gustave's presumed size.
A series of horrific attacks in early 2004 were characteristic of Gustave's legendary appetite. In January of that year he disappeared from the Rusizi delta. In February Faye picked up unconfirmed reports that a huge crocodile was prowling public beaches along the north shore of Lake Tanganyika. The following month a group of fishermen told him that "a crocodile as big as a boat" was on a feeding binge near the town of Magara. Faye drove to the town and came home with this appalling entry in his notebook:
Harimenshi, age 14, son of Ntigacika Francois, killed March 8, 2004
Mbaychonankwa, adolescent, son of Karenzo Peel, March 10
Cekamabo, [no age], March 12
Ntimunsubire, adolescent, son of Ezechiel Buumi, March 14
Ndarubayemwo, adolescent, son of Mugabonihera, March 15
Faye believes that if Gustave were captured and placed in the cement enclosure that he had built in Rusizi National Park, killings of this sort would end. What's more, the infamous giant would attract paying visitors to the park, which has suffered during the civil war. Nothing satisfies a morbid curiosity—or keeps a zoo's turnstiles spinning—like a man-eater.
In Burundi the majority of crocodile attacks go unreported, because they involve faceless "little people," as Faye calls them. After two days of not finding Gustave among the reeds of the Rusizi delta or along Lake Tanganyika's shore, we turn to these victims for clues.
One of the few Burundians who survived an attack—by Gustave, he claims—is a young barber named Hatungimana Audifax. His surname, Hatungimana, means "God keep you safe" in Kirundi. Audifax works out of a roadside stall in Bujumbura. It's bedlam in the streets, so we ask if he'll join us for a drink at our hotel's bar. He walks quickly and expertly on crutches handmade of steel pipe while his neighborhood buddies tease him: "Hey, Audifax, you're the big star today." He flashes a grin at them, but his face turns serious as he climbs into our Land Cruiser.
"It was seven years ago, when I was 13," he says, sucking on his teeth for emphasis at the end of each sentence. "Around 11:30 in the morning, my friends and I went for a swim. They say people on shore were shouting 'crocodile!' but I didn't hear them. The croc grabbed me by the leg. At first, I thought it was one of my friends. I looked back and saw this thing that was huge and old. Then I felt the pain. It was unbelievable."
Nearby fishermen beat the water with long poles, startling the attacker enough for it to loosen its grip on Audifax's leg, and he swam desperately toward shore with the croc right behind.
"It was like he was escorting me," the barber continues. "He didn't attack, maybe because the fishermen were beating on the water. I turned to look at him and our eyes met. My leg was crushed and some of the calf muscle was torn off. I was almost losing my mind because of the pain."
Doctors said there was no hope for Audifax's leg and amputated it below the knee. How does he know the croc was Gustave? "I'll tell you how," he shoots back. "While I was in the hospital, I heard that four other people were attacked and eaten at the same beach. Five attacks at one beach: That's how Gustave is."
After the interview, Audifax agrees to take us to the scene of the crime: Voodoo Beach. No crocs are visible on the beach, but there could be dozens of them lurking in the water. I ask if he ever goes there.
"Sure, all the time, with my friends. It's fun. I swim, too, but I never go very far into the water."
Faye thinks that Gustave is innocent in this case—that the terrified young barber who only got a brief look at his attacker, has written the infamous Gustave into the script. It's beside the point. What's astonishing is that losing a leg isn't sufficient warning to keep a person from swimming at the very beach where he nearly perished.
South African crocodile ecologist Alison Leslie joined Faye on the hunt for Gustave in October 2002, when, because of her 11 years' experience studying Nile crocs in Botswana and South Africa, she was recruited as scientific adviser to Vincent Munie's documentary team. I contact her to check the science behind the Gustave legend.
Leslie first saw Gustave through binoculars at quite a distance, about 500 feet (152 meters), but was still stunned. "He's bigger than any Nile crocodile I have ever seen—even in captivity," she tells me. "I was overjoyed that there was a crocodile that large still alive in the wild."
Yet from that distance, and because Gustave was mostly submerged, Leslie was unable to determine his length. In nine years of studying Nile crocs, the largest bull she'd seen was about 15 feet (4.6 meters) long. Some of the size estimates I'd heard for Gustave, up to 28 feet (8.5 meters), rival the size of prehistoric crocs in the fossil record. But colonial-era hunting records that Leslie had read indicated that the biggest Nile croc trophy ever taken (in Uganda) was just shy of 18 feet (5.5 meters).
Gustave kept his distance throughout the documentary team's capture efforts, regardless of how tempting the bait or powerful the potions concocted by Gatumba's preeminent witch doctor. The team tried a live goat, flapping chickens, and finally, out of desperation, the sorcerer's old unwanted dog, which he offered as a face-saving sacrifice. The dog broke free and escaped.
Faye's trap itself was immense—more than 30 people were required to carry it—but every morning the team found it empty. Overnight video footage recorded only a gigantic crocodile's spooky eyes, shining near the trap's gate.
Finally the colossal contraption began to sink slowly into the Rusizi's sediments, turning the capture attempt into a total bust. For a second try the following March, Faye placed a number of snares along the lower mile of the Rusizi. These also proved ineffective.
Leslie came away from Burundi unconvinced that Gustave has claimed as many victims as legend would have it, or that he is some sort of malevolent villain that kills humans for pleasure. "Crocodiles take food opportunistically," she explains. "They attack if they're hungry. They can also become territorial and aggressive during breeding season."
But when is the breeding season in the Rusizi delta? Leslie wasn't sure, because so little is known about the delta's croc population. Similarly, she explains, much remains unknown about the natural history of Nile crocs of Gustave's size and presumed age in the region. How large a territory does he guard, for example: a 30-meter beach, a 30-mile (48-kilometer) radius? We don't know.
Does he move from the delta into the lake to seek a larger harem and establish wider boundaries? A mystery. Could it be that he leaves the delta in October and returns in February during certain years because between those months the Rusizi is full of silt, whereas Lake Tanganyika is clear and full of easy-to-see fish? Or is he eating people because he can't make a living on other animals? That's Faye's theory at least, and while untested in a long-term study, it's not easily dismissed.
Like crocodiles, lions also take food opportunistically and have been known to prey on humans, most famously the man-eaters of Kenya's Tsavo region, who dined on coolies building the railroad line from coastal Mombasa to Uganda at the turn of the 20th century. Those lions turned to feeding on humans when an epidemic of rinderpest, an introduced cattle virus, devastated populations of their usual prey: buffalo, antelope, and other ungulates. To the hungry lions, the railroad workers were an easy lunch.
In light of the Tsavo lions, consider the following scenario: As the human population of the Rusizi delta has swollen during 15 years of war, once plentiful numbers of antelope, elephant, and other game have been decimated. Doesn't it make sense that when careless humans replaced wary antelope along the river's banks, meat-seeking crocodiles might have changed their dietary habits accordingly?
Such a theory gains weight when one considers another source of human flesh: casualties of the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that have been thrown into the Rusizi in such numbers that they are reported to have clogged the river's mouth. Gustave's unholy feeding habit may be just another grotesque consequence of the violence that has gripped this region for decades.
Leslie offers another plausible theory about Gustave's legendary, but, to her, improbable, victim count: It's a catchall for the toll of war, accidental drownings, and unexplained disappearances. But, after interviewing families in Gatumba, she doesn't discount the fact that Gustave has eaten numerous people. "It was definitely Gustave they described," she says. "People know him from his markings." The tip-off, apart from Gustave's size, is that dark scar on his head.
The tracking device Barr is bringing should reveal exactly how lethal Gustave is. "If there were an attack on a villager," Barr told me before the expedition, "we could say, 'Well, Gustave was six kilometers [about four miles] away at the time.'" Other questions about Gustave's anatomy, physiology, and genetics will be resolved with a measuring tape, a bite-force meter, and blood and tissue samples, which, as Leslie says, "would tell a hundred and one tales about him."
Step one, however, is to impound Gustave. Barr plans to slip a cable noose around his neck from a small boat and drag him to shore. Faye, the leader of our advance group, is understandably ambivalent about his bit part as expert consultant in Barr's TV show, but he continues to help in finding Gustave. Over his years of tracking him, he's developed a strange connection to the creature.
"He is my friend," says Faye. "We know each other. We are survivors and soul mates."
Among the many mysteries about Gustave, the most perplexing involve not the behavior of the predator but the psychology of its human prey. Years ago, I swam in Lake Tanganyika, in an Edenic cove in Tanzania, about halfway down the 420-mile-long (676 kilometers) lake. My guide told me that several juvenile crocs I'd noticed on the beach posed no threat, and I naively took his word. But villagers in Burundi are not naive about the risk of swimming or fishing; they share the same horror we all do of being ambushed and killed by a cold and efficient predator.
One only has to look inside to notice that humans seem predisposed to fearing crocodiles. "There are many subtle, basic biological factors in how we respond to large predatory carnivores," explains John Thorbjarnarson, a crocodile expert with the Wildlife Conservation Society. "As humans we are hard-wired to respect them and to learn their behaviors."
Indeed, our instinctive horror of being mauled by a crocodile is so strong that Thorbjarnarson thinks Homo sapiens may have inherited the capacity for this reaction from our hominid forbears. When our arboreal ancestors came down from the trees some five to eight million years ago, crocodiles were already a well-established part of the landscape. They've been around in various forms for 220 million years. As gracile scavengers who likely fed on reptilian eggs from time to time, our early ancestors must have understood the importance of studying the behaviors of primeval crocodiles. If you were cunning and bold, or just hungry enough, you could gamble your life and raid a croc nest for dinner.
Further along the evolutionary line, human cultures developed superstitions about crocodiles and taboos against approaching them. These age-old taboos endure among many indigenous peoples, who regard crocodiles as supernatural beings created to punish the wicked. Crocodiles are invincible and magical: When soldiers fired on Gustave, he "swallowed their bullets." And during Faye's first attempt to capture him, the old witch doctor in Gatumba poured powerful potions on the trap while murmuring sacred spells—both to no avail.
Even modern Western creeds mythologize about the potency of reptilians. The Old Testament's Leviathan is equal parts crocodile, serpent, and sea monster. It has smoking nostrils, flames shooting out of its maw, and glowing eyes, "like the eyelids of dawn."
I carried that evocation along with me during our search for Gustave. It's from Job 41, which describes the plight of those who go after the Leviathan:
Can you put a rope in his nose,
or pierce his jaw with a hook? . . .
Will you put him on a leash for
your maidens? . . .
Lay hands on him;
think of the battle; you will not do
it again! . . .
No one is so fierce that he dares to
stir him up.
Biblical allegories, superstitions, government warnings, and a vast literature on crocodile attacks—nothing seems to keep people from being eaten alive by the two most dangerous species of crocodilians, the Nile croc and the saltwater croc (which inhabits coastal estuaries of South Asia and northern Australia). Necessity overrides instinct, curiosity triumphs over caution. And the croc, unseen, takes the meal.
"People have to get their water, do their laundry, fish for a living," says Barr. "If a croc does take a person, villagers may slaughter a few crocs after an attack—enough to feel as if they've done something—and then they go back to doing what they have to do."
This is precisely the situation in Gatumba, the town that presses hard against Rusizi National Park. In the past decade, Gatumba has swelled from a village to a pulsing community of thousands, many of them displaced by civil war in both Burundi and the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. Mud-brick huts and tin shacks sprawl along the estuaries of the Rusizi, and, at the west end of town near the Congo border, there's a sizeable refugee camp that's under the nominal protection of the military and United Nations peacekeepers. The month before our arrival however, Hutu extremists swept through the camp and massacred 160 Tutsi refugees from the Congo. All but four victims were women and children.
As soon as we arrive in the village, Faye is besieged by a throng of kids. They adore him because they believe he protects them from Gustave. Kids surround him like the pied piper. "Fai-ya, Fai-ya," they chant. As we walk down the banks of an estuary, children somersault naked into the muddy water, showing off for Faye. Gahungu Chedrac, the stern, elderly chef du village, disapproves and scolds them, "Get out of that river!" They ignore him.
Farther along, we encounter women washing laundry in the water. Men and women bathe at private beaches without protective fences between them and the water. No one seems to be standing watch.
One of the villagers Faye knows is a woman who lost her husband to a massive croc with a curious dark spot on its head. The widow's name is Nitegeka Abiya. Squatting beside the entrance to her darkened house, with her baby daughter on her back swaddled in a sarong, she wears the same hard, perturbed look that I had seen on Adifax's face.
"I don't remember the exact day," she recounts, "but it was about 3 o'clock in the afternoon. My husband, Mayoya, and I had just eaten and he said, 'I'll be right back. I'm going to river to wash up.' I heard people screaming, 'The croc! It's taking someone!' I ran to see what was happening and I saw his clothing on the banks.
"We were sure that it was Gustave," she continues. "What could we do?"
This time, Faye agrees that it was probably Gustave: Eyewitnesses gave a description that correctly identified his dark scar. Three days later, fishermen on the lake discovered Abiya's husband's head. They brought it back to her for identification. He was 35. Abiya was pregnant.
For the people of Gatumba, the possibility of dying suddenly, violently—at the river's edge, on the highway, or in a rebel ambush—is a central fact of life. They mourn the victims of rogue crocodile attacks with grim fatalism. And then they return to bathing and fishing and washing clothes in the river, and allowing their children to swim in it, as if an epidemic of amnesia had erased the horror.
The day after we visit Gatumba, after almost a week of following Gustave's faint trail, we learn in Bujumbura that Hutu extremists with the Forces Nationales de Libération, or FNL, have ambushed a military checkpoint on the Gatumba Road, halfway between the capital and the Rusizi Bridge. According to rumors (which later prove to be exaggerated), the rebels killed three soldiers before tossing a grenade inside a crowded bus. This same group allegedly led the massacre at Gatumba's U.N. refugee camp.
When Barr and his colleagues arrive the next day, we meet on the second-floor veranda of our hotel. Faye is not present. Barr and his crew are bantering about giving Gustave "a Brady spanking" when I interrupt to describe the ambush. I relate that three witnesses have told us that Gustave is holed up in an area north of Gatumba called the Rukoko District—the scene of nightly firefights between the army and FNL.
Thirty-six hours later, a passenger jet thunders out over the lake, gains altitude, and disappears over the mountains east of Bujumbura. Barr and the film team are aboard, headed for a croc study area in South Africa. There will be no measurements of Gustave, no blood and tissue samples, and certainly no Brady spanking. Barr, justifiably, refused to sit in the front of a boat at night with a spotlight held at his chest, a perfect target for an FNL rebel. "Hell," he told me before leaving, "TV is not worth dying for."
Under the circumstances, Barr's decision is prudent, but it leaves Model and me in a predicament. We've come to Burundi to bring Gustave to life, to answer the myriad questions, and, perhaps, to solve the mysteries. With Barr gone, our scientific ambitions will almost certainly go unrealized. Tracking Gustave's movements to confirm that he is, in fact, the man-eater he's reputed to be will have to wait for another day.
Still, I can't shake the desire to witness this legendary monster with my own eyes. To be so close to one of the wonders of the world and pass up a chance to see it would be foolish. On the other hand, tempting fate with trigger-happy rebels also seems ill-advised. In my 3 a.m. quandary over what to do, on some absurd and manic level, I face the dilemma that humans have confronted through the millennia: Steal the egg and take the drink, or go hungry and thirsty?
In my case, temptation triumphs over caution. I propose to Munie and Model that we press the hunt into the Rukoko District. Together, we decide to go for it. An employee at the U.S. embassy calls us "F-ing lunatics."
Two days later, we're walking along the Rusizi in rebel-held territory. Faye has joined us, and so has Daniel Gahungu, a thin, bright-eyed 51-year-old fisherman from Gatumba who saw Gustave in the Rukoko District in early August, just before the refugee camp massacre. Since then he has been too afraid to return to his favorite fishing holes.
Somehow orders from the colonel who approved our mission have been misinterpreted. We start out with a patrol of 18 soldiers, but more and more troops materialize out of the bush to fall in with us. I stop counting at 100. Stomping through parched cotton fields, I can imagine what we might sound like to Gustave, whose skin is filled with acute mechanoreceptors that can detect subtle vibrations and changes in water pressure, such as those caused by a passing fish, a hapless fisherman taking his afternoon bath, or a parade of heavily-guarded journalists.
It's possible that we are walking right on top of Gustave. Crocodiles burrow into riverbanks to escape harsh conditions, such as hot, dry weather—or civil war. Hidden in a cool dugout, Gustave could slow down his metabolism and live for months on one meal alone.
Suddenly, gunfire erupts south of us. The brigade's commander, Major Cyriaque Nzobatinya, radios ahead. Not to worry, he says calmly. His troops have spotted a few rebels and are clearing the bush for us.
After several sweaty, fruitless hours of searching, we drive to a second location downstream, where the bush-clearing operation occurred. As soon as we arrive, the major's radio crackles to life. "It's still not secure," he says. We'll have to resume the hunt another day.
When we return to the army camp after the weekend, Model and I walk a hundred yards up the road to the cemetery of freshly dug graves for the slain refugees. Inside the low brick wall, rows of white crosses bear only the victim's dates of birth and death. One reads "2002–2004." From a nearby school, a chorus of children reciting lessons sounds like a choir of angels.
We pile in the army trucks and drive north, paralleling the Rusizi, to the Kiliba border post. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is 30 yards (27 meters) away. I walk down to the river to look for Gustave. As I'm glassing the banks with binoculars, hysterical screeching and ululations from across the border freeze my blood.
"Michael!" Munie calls to me. "Come on! We have to leave."
The Congolese border guards are Mai Mai, the storied "magic warriors" of central Africa. They anoint themselves with supernatural water before going into battle, believing it will render them invisible to their enemies. (Mai Mai literally means "powerful water.") There are stories about them wearing water-related paraphernalia such as shower hoses and drain plugs as protective talismans. They're suspected of participating in the refugee massacre, and I can believe it. The mere presence of Tutsis in our escort is enough to provoke them.
Yes, I concede, coming to my senses, it is time to leave. We will not find Gustave, but our conversations with his victims and with Faye have taught us a good deal about him and his habits anyway: He is a killer, a survivor, and probably as big as Faye believes him to be. But he is not the reigning beast of chaos in Burundi. Ethnic conflict is.
"The biggest crocs I've ever seen have been in communist nations or countries at war, places like Cuba, Burma, and Cambodia," Barr told me before flying out. "They have survived because people have other things to worry about. If peace ever comes to Burundi, mark my words: Someone is going to kill that animal."
Until then, Gustave lives.