Setting: Burundi.

Plot: Serial killer on the loose.

Burundi, in the heart of Africa

Specific setting: Ruzizi River (great name), Lake Tanganyika, the second largest lake in Africa.

The Ruzizi River flowing toward Lake Tanganyika
Lake Tanganyika from space - NASA

In the 1990s and early 2000s, a predatory stalker killed as many as 300 humans in the middle of Africa. In the region, this terror gained mythical status, on par with Jack the Ripper or the Zodiac. His name is Gustave.

If a river and a lake seem to be strange hunting grounds for such a prolific criminal and if you find it strange you’ve never heard of the mononymic serial killer Gustave, that’s because Gustave is not your ordinary serial killer.

Gustave is a crocodile.

Nile crocodiles - photo by Dewet

Gustave is, in particular, a Nile crocodile. These reptiles inhabit the freshwaters of the continent, not just those of the world’s longest river. They are agile, stealthy, and pack a lot of jaw strength. The crocs are large. Males typically range from 2.8 meters long to 3.7 meters long (about 9-12 feet in length). The average male weighs approximately 600 pounds. They are apex predators.

But Gustave merely chuckles at those average measurements.

He is a behemoth among monsters. Though he has never been directly measured, scientists who have seen Gustave in the flesh peg his length at somewhere north of six meters (approximately 20 feet). They estimate his weight to be more than one ton (2,000 pounds). He is almost too big for the Ruzizi River. Video and photographic documentation shows him bulging from the water.

A photo of Gustave by Martin Best

When people started dying around the river and lake, word quickly spread about a mammoth maneater.

At first, officials and scientists were skeptical that one entity could have slain dozens of humans or that a crocodile was even responsible at all. Most Nile crocodiles feast on smaller game, occasionally snagging something on the scale of a wildebeest. Though human attacks are not necessarily rare, they are sparse enough that the body count was alarming. Still, could one croc really be doing all the damage?

Rumors and mythology surrounding the predator grew. Some who had seen him gave him fantastical traits, such as being red or yellow or the ability to jump. A herpetologist in the area decided to get to the bottom of the mystery. After spending years searching for the culprit, Patrice Faye was aghast at his own conclusion: it was indeed one crocodile wreaking havoc. He dubbed him “Gustave.”

A frame from the documentary on Gustave - PBS

Faye decided to attempt to capture the rogue reptile. He wanted to bring him in alive, so scientists could study Gustave while saving lives. He enlisted two other croc experts to help him build a contraption large enough to safely trap Gustave. The trio filmed their efforts, which became a 2003 documentary called Capturing the Killer Croc.

Along the way, they discovered something shocking about the big boy. Originally, researchers assumed Gustave must have been approximately a century old because of his size. Crocs can live that long and they continue to grow until they die. Usually, if a specimen grew to be his size he would be around 100 years old. But, as you can see in the photo above, Gustave still has his teeth. Crocodiles that reach the century mark almost always lose their chompers. Based on the state of his teeth, the scientists estimated Gustave is actually only about 50 years old, making his size even more extraordinary.

Another difference between Gustave and the average croc is what they hunt. His large size actually inhibits him from catching smaller, faster prey. Witnesses actually caught Gustave attacking and killing a hippopotamus! Hippos are tanks! No problem for Gustave! In the film, you can actually watch multiple hippos that need to team up to protect a baby from Gustave. If he was taking down hippos, it’s no wonder he was attacking humans, as well.

Gustave's head versus the size of normal crocodiles!

The documentary is an interesting watch. I won’t give away the farm, since some of you might want to watch, but it’s hard to avoid certain giveaways. Spoiler: Gustave is smarter than the scientists anticipated.

This article could be written in the past tense. As of 2021, it’s likely that Gustave is dead, though he was never caught by humans. He was spotted definitively in 2009. An unsubstantiated article in 2019 claimed the tormenting reptile had been killed. It’s possible he’s simply not devouring humans anymore.

Even if he has shuffled off this mortal coil, he will live on forever, as he served as the inspiration for the 2007 horror film Primeval. I’m sure you’ve all seen it.

If the spirit moves you, spend an hour watching the documentary, Capturing the Killer Croc.

Further Reading and Exploration

Have You Seen This Crocodile? – National Geographic

Gustave the Croc Surfaces to Strike Again – National Geographic

Serial Killer Croc Gustave Spotted in Burundi – National Geographic

10 Real-Life Killers That Inspired Terrifying Films! – Bloody Disgusting

Primeval – Directed by Michael Katleman

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