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 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.