The last time we went looking for Gustave, Burundi's fabled man-eating crocodile, he was nowhere to be found. It was October 2004, and we'd set out to track down and radio-tag the so-called Monster of Lake Tanganyika, one of the biggest and most bloodthirsty Nile crocs on record.
At roughly 20 feet long and approaching 2,000 pounds, Gustave was reputed to have devoured scores, even hundreds of villagers in the war-weary central African country, picking off victims like some maniacal serial killer. A week before our capture team arrived, Patrice Faye, a self-taught naturalist who has been stalking Gustave since 1998, believed he had spotted him in the estuary of the Rusizi River at the head of the lake. But after leading us on a fruitless search, the expatriate Frenchman gave a Gallic shrug. Maybe rumors of Gustave's demise were true: He'd been shot and eaten by rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, or had died of old age. Or maybe he'd simply burrowed into the Rusizi's muddy banks to wait out Burundi's protracted Hutu-Tutsi civil war. We left on an uncertain note, with Gustave's mythology fully intact.
In fact, "Gustave is quite alive," Faye told us by telephone on the third anniversary of our aborted mission. "After a long absence he has come back to the Rusizi, and a lot of tourists have had the privilege of seeing him. He's in excellent health, and his prize list of victims has grown."
So, too, has Gustave's international renown. Our story, posted on Adventure's website, has received more hits than any other in the magazine's nine-year history. Web traffic soared after the January 2007 release of Disney's Primeval, a based-on-true-events gorefest starring a cheesy computer-generated giant crocodile named Gustave. Let's not dwell on whose story inspired the screenwriters (we were briefly thrilled when a top studio executive phoned in March 2005 to say that she'd read our article and proposed a deal, which subsequently evaporated in a feeding frenzy of lawyers and producers), but theirs involves a crew of American TV journalists dispatched to "one of the most remote locations on Earth" to hunt down and apprehend "the world's most prolific serial killer." Set in Burundi but filmed in South Africa, the movie, said Faye, "is an insult to purists and herpetologists but, above all, an insult to Burundi.
"It shows the country in a bad light, and the people of Burundi are made out to be savages, barbarians, thieves, and murderers," he told us. "The only good Burundian in the movie ends up being rescued and taken to the United States." The digitized Gustave gallops across the screen like "a champion of cross-country races who devours campsites and cars, climbs trees, and swallows boats," Faye wrote in an indignant letter to Burundi's newspapers. "In short, poor Gustave is a victim of fantasies and becomes more monstrous than ever."
The real-life Gustave is monstrous enough and not nearly as cryptic as we had thought. "I had a pretty clear idea of his movements for the past three years," Faye said. "I have a lot of sources—fishermen, pilots who fly over the lake—and even though I wasn't getting day-to-day information, I knew where he was."
Last spring, for example, Faye received regular reports from the village of Ruziba, just south of Bujumbura, Burundi's capital. At least one fatal attack there could be credibly pinned on Gustave, who apart from his sheer size bears distinctive bullet scars: one on his head, three on his right side.
A croc of similar stature and markings killed a fisherman near Ruziba in April. "He was standing waist-deep in the lake when the croc dragged him away and drowned him," Faye recalled. "There were a lot of witnesses. They raised such a commotion that the crocodile let him go. His widow showed me pictures of the corpse. He had a nasty bite in the stomach and one in the leg." Onlookers chased Gustave away before he could finish his bloody work, Faye said, noting that Gustave doesn't always eat his victims: "I think some of his attacks could just be hunting practice."
During our 2004 mission, the plan was to have herpetologist Brady Barr, the daring host of the National Geographic Channel's Dangerous Encounters, sneak up on Gustave at night in a pirogue, slip a wire noose around his prodigious neck, and wrestle him to shore. After taking measurements and tissue samples, Barr intended to implant a global positioning device beneath Gustave's armored skin that would have alerted villagers to potential danger.
Such warnings might still have gone unheeded, however, because the people who live around the lake depend on it both for life's necessities—food, water, bathing, washing clothes—and for recreation. After Gustave showed up again in the Rusizi, in mid-August, Faye cautioned residents in the nearby village of Gatumba to be on guard. "The fishermen and swimmers didn't interrupt their activities," he said. "It is wishful thinking that people will stay out of the water."
Gustave has yet to snatch anyone from Gatumba, but Faye has no doubt that he is the big croc responsible for these new attacks. When he's not lurking beneath the muddy waters of the Rusizi, fishing and waiting for opportunities for larger prey, he basks on his favorite sandbar, wearing what seems to be a sinister, self-satisfied grin. "I am 100 percent sure it's him," Faye said.
Whether we dust off our plans and head back to Burundi for Operation Gustave, Part Deux, remains to be decided. Barr has almost fully recovered from massive bite wounds on his thigh, the result of a too-close encounter with a giant python on the Indonesian island of Flores. As this issue went to press, he and his field producers had just completed an expedition to Costa Rica and were digesting the news of Gustave's return.