The Killer Crocodile That Haunted the Waters of Burundi

Swimmers beware.
Swimmers beware. / Digital Vision/iStock via Getty Images

The screams coming from Lake Tanganyika were Nitegeka Abiya's first sign her husband Mayoya wasn't coming home. He had only gone to wash up when he was snatched from the shore, leaving a pregnant Nitegeka to raise their child alone.

A tragedy like this should happen once in a lifetime, but for years in Burundi it was a sadly familiar tale.

Burundi, one of the smallest countries in Africa, is wedged between the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania. The lush, green plains of Rusizi National Park are less than 10 miles from its bustling capital. There, among untouched landscape and plentiful wildlife, danger lurked beneath the water, with scarred, leathery skin and powerful jaws.

The Quest to Catch the World's Most Dangerous Crocodile

Fatal attacks began plaguing the area in 1987. Reports showed that they took place primarily in three villages—Magara, Kanyosha, and Minago—that border Lake Tanganyika. While many Nile crocodiles popped up on the banks, eyewitness reports always pointed to the same culprit. This particular creature was unusually large, and had a noticeable scar on top of its head.

In 1998, the killer croc caught the attention of Burundi resident and French native Patrice Faye. A self-styled reptile expert and hunter, Faye sometimes worked with a group of fishermen who told him an enormous crocodile had attacked one of their colleagues. That same year, he got a license to hunt and kill the culprit.

The first few times Faye caught up with the crocodile, his attempts to kill him were unsuccessful. Then one day, when he managed to get up close, he realized just how exceptional the reptile was. Faye estimated that the creature was 20 feet long—the size of a large great white shark—and weighed somewhere around 2000 pounds, making him 3 feet longer and more than 300 pounds heavier than a typical male Nile crocodile.

Not only that, but judging by the marks on his body, he seemed almost indestructible. Scars along the crocodile’s side looked to have been caused by gun fire, and a wound on his shoulder suggested a previous encounter with armed soldiers. From then on, Faye was determined to track the creature’s movements—not to kill, but to learn. He even gave him a name: Gustave.

News of the killer crocodile began to spread beyond the landlocked borders of Burundi, eventually drawing the interest of French film director Vincent Munié. His 2004 documentary Capturing the Killer Croc followed an attempt to trap Gustave with a custom-built 32-foot-long cage. Though it was loaded with various bait, day after day the trap remained empty. Eventually, it began to sink into the sediment, and the capture attempt was brought to a close.

The Legend of Gustave

Meanwhile, tales of Gustave grew increasingly fantastical. People who saw him described mythical characteristics: Some said he had red or yellow coloring; others claimed to have seen jewelry around his neck; more insisted clumps of grass grew out of his head. His human-eating tendencies also became the stuff of legends. According to one story, Gustave once ate more than a dozen people in one go “and still seemed hungry at the end of it all.”

But not everyone was convinced of Gustave’s human flesh-hungry reputation. Crocodile expert Alison Leslie, who joined Faye on the televised capture attempt, stated that crocodiles don't kill for pleasure, but “take food opportunistically. They attack if they're hungry.” And despite their large size, crocodiles don't need much to sustain them. When supplies are sparse, they can even go more than a year without food.

The opening lines of Capturing the Killer Croc state that nearly 300 deaths have been attributed to Gustave, a figure that is often quoted to this day. But in the 2011 book Crazy River: A Plunge into Africa, Faye told author Richard Grant that he had documented every case and at that time, Gustave had killed 60 people, maybe even fewer.

Just as much of Gustave’s life is shrouded in mystery, so too is his disappearance. The last rumored sighting was in 2015, and claims that he was killed in 2019 have never been verified. We may never know how many lives he ended, but one thing is for certain: Whether Gustave is alive or dead, the legend of Burundi’s killer croc lives on.