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Have You Seen This Croc?
A cold-blooded killer is on the loose. His name is Gustave. He's 20 feet long (six meters), weighs 2,000 pounds (907 kilograms), and stands accused of devouring hundreds of people. WRITER MICHAEL MCRAE travels to war-torn Burundi to confront the man-eater.

Photo: Burundi's Rusizi River
THE SUSPECT: A young boy from the village of Gatumba holds up a photograph of the alleged serial killer, Gustave. Refugee-crowded Gatumba sits adjacent to the Rusizi River delta—a prime habitat for Nile crocodiles.

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 (four-meter) 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 long (six meters), weighs one ton, 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.

Photograph by Bobby Model

Additional Excerpts
From the print edition, March 2005

Have You Seen This Croc? The serial killer of Burundi

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Related Web Sites

NG Explorer Extra
Herpetologist and host of Crocodile Chronicles Brady Barr is known for giving crocs a "Brady spanking." Find out more about his work with National Geographic Explorer.

Patrice Faye
For an update on Gustave sightings or to find out about Patrice Faye's environmental projects in Burundi, check out his Web site.

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March 2005

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