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.