Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cracking the Crocodilian Code

River Ruzizi in Burundi is hardly recognizable on the African map, but it’s among the most famous spot for adventure seekers not because of its scenery or people but one crocodilian resident famously known as Gustave.
What makes this Gustave beast standout among his peers residing in this crocodile infested river is his gargantuan nature. He is said to be 20 feet long and weighs almost a ton. According to villagers living along the shores of this muddy waterway that cuts across the Burundi, Rwanda and DR Congo border, the fabled reptilian monster is said to have devoured more than 300 people in the last two decades.
Many experts argue that it’s impossible for one crocodile to cause such a damage but Patrice Faye, a French naturalist who has been tracing this animal for the last ten years, the degree of exaggeration in these reports is very minimal.
“Gustave is real,” said Faye. I’ve seen him. I’ve seen three different people in his jaws.” A local fisherman, Jumaine Mbankunguka, confirms Faye’s claims by narrating how he had seen the animal crossing the river one morning, moving quickly and seeming to stretch on forever.
Coming to the shores during the mating seasons when he leaves his abode in the reeds to seek females the crocodile’s huge size means that it can’t catch swift animals which reduces its feeding options to fish, bathers and fishermen. But according to John Thorbjarnarson, a crocodile expert from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, it’s common for people to exaggerate the size of a big crocodile. “A really big Nile crocodile, which is probably what Gustave is, would be about 17 feet,” he says. “But this would appear larger especially with the excitement of fear or terror.”
Explaining the beast’s famous penchant for human flesh Mr. Thorbjarnarson gives the locals a benefit of doubt since Gustave is a Nile croc, one of the 23 species of crocodiles and alligators known to be man-eaters. However the herpetologist believes the animal might be blamed for deaths he had nothing to do with. “It’s very easy to blame a crocodile for people who drowns or go missing,” he says.
The legend of Gustave is held with a godlike awe in this region hence it’s hard to pick the truth from the myths. For instance there are claims that Gustave kills grownup hippos for food, a very unlikely scenario since the two fierce species always have a mutual respect for each other.
Although Mr. Faye has dedicated a lot of his time in the last 12 years to tracking and trapping Gustave, the task has proved as daunting as the beast itself. From using a goat in a giant metal cage placed in the river to nooses and other contraptions, the Frenchman has exhausted all the tricks in his bag to no avail.
In one of the occasions the self declared eccentric was so sure of catching the beast that he invited a television crew from National Geographic to witness the great capture, but it turned out to be a hoax.
Perplexed by Faye’s persistence in the hunt, Burundian authorities have built a large enclosed pool at the edge of the river in Rusizi National Park in case the Frenchman’s endevours bears fruit. The Park management and Mr. Faye are optimistic that Gustave will one day be housed here, which will hopefully bring in a flood of tourists from all over the world.
After 2003 the giant croc went underground until 2007 when he resurfaced again. During his apparent sabbatical there was a sigh of relief in many fishing villages along the shores of Rusizi with everyone hoping the menace was over. Rumours were rife that he had been shot and eaten by rebels in the DR Congo or had died of old age.
But all this turned out to be false hopes as the reptile resurfaced in 2007 doing what he does best: killing. This time round the victim was a fisherman tending to his nets. “He was standing waist-deep in the lake when the croc dragged him away and drowned him,” Faye recalls. “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.”
The leviathan has managed to elude skillful crocodile hunters from around the world for the last two decades, the only scythe from these encounters being a bullet scar on its head by which his surviving victims identify him.
After a highly exaggerated story of the Gustave legend was posted on Adventurer, a popular US-based travel magazine, the amphibious superstar inspired a fiction film entitled Primeval. Set in Burundi and filmed in South Africa with a larger than life computer generated crocodile the movie evoked strong criticism from many quarters., among them Gustave’s greatest admirers Faye
“It shows the country in bad light, and the people of Burundi are made out to be savages, barbarians, thieves, and murderers,” says Frenchman. “The only good Burundian in the movie ends up being rescued and taken to the United States.” The visibly unhappy environmentalist went end to explain how Hollywood directors and image creators portrays Gustave galloping across the screen like “a champion of cross-country races who devours campsites and cars, climbs trees, and swallows boats.”

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