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.