The Nile crocodile has a somewhat well-deserved reputation as a man-eater.
The proximity of its habitat to people means run-ins are frequent, and its indiscriminate diet means a villager drawing water is at risk.
Such was the case in 2016 at Lago de Cahora Bassa, a large freshwater lake in the Tete Province of Mozambique and home to a crocodile that was stalking villagers.
“The outfit I work with called and said, ‘We have some crocodiles, why don’t you come get one?'" said Kackie Lerille, who calls Lafayette home. “I had hunted with African Maximum Safaris and got a concession to hunt in this area. You don’t just get one; you have to have a permit, and overpopulation was causing a problem."
When she arrived, Lerille said she was told stories of how dangerous the creatures are.
“These particular crocodiles are opportunistic apex predators. The worst character, responsible for more deaths than any other animal on the planet. Any opportunity for whatever reason," she said. "I’ve never had an alligator get aggressive. With crocodiles, you don’t see them, they see you. There’s no human response time.”
Lerille flew to Mozambique, after which it took some five hours more by vehicle and boat to reach camp.
“It’s remote, the middle of nowhere,” she said. “There was a snake in my bungalow … I just didn’t know it at first. The mosquito netting above the bed you see in the movies? It’s all true.”
In the area were several villages.
"You’d see someone riding down the dirt trail on a bicycle, with two big buckets for water, and wonder where they were going,” she said. “They were sending their weaker members, the elderly, to fetch the water.”
Lerille met her professional hunter at camp and was positioned behind a blind 100 yards away and armed with a custom-built MG Arms Ultra Lite .300 Win-Mag rifle.
“We watched all day long,” she recalled. “You want to take out the big ones; they’re the most aggressive. It’s more adrenaline than danger. You need to know what equipment you’re using, otherwise you don’t know what you’re doing.
“The shot is a precision shot. If you miss, the crocodile will go back in the water.”
It was her first crocodile, and ironically the lake's name, Lago de Cahora Bassa, is from the African Nyungwe Kahoura-Bassa, meaning “finish the job.”
“I never saw another human being, but the minute the bullet left the rifle, the villagers all came out clapping," Lerille said. "That was amazing. I never saw them, but they were there waiting. I gave the meat to the village.”
The crocodile measured over 14 feet long and was estimated to be between 80 and 100 years old. When skinned, a musket ball was found in the leg. Lerille decided to bring the croc back to the U.S., its full body mounted.
“That took about two years of nonstop, staying on top of it. First the skin stays in salt. Then there’s customs (in) Johannesburg, the broker to bring it in, then the taxidermist. I decided to bring it back full-body mounted because there can’t be that many of them. Lots of children will never travel outside this area. It’s their only chance to see it.”
And see it they can at the Lafayette Science Museum.
“When Kackie told me about it, I thought of two things," said Kevin Krantz, director of the museum. "The fact we’d have to add acrylic to keep hands from touching it, and how to tell the story. To end up with a story like hers, it’s so personal. … I had to be mindful that I was putting this out in front of tons of people. My main consideration always has to be space. I knew it wouldn’t fit in the freight elevator.”
Krantz tore down another exhibit to make room.
Atop a 16-foot base made from a native African wood called sapele, the crocodile resides on the museum’s first floor in perpetuity, courtesy of a foam armature underneath by Dave’s Taxidermy.
“Very few exhibits are permanent, but the croc is,” Krantz said. “Local science, local story. It’s what makes us the Lafayette Science Museum.
“It’s baiting the hook,” he added. “You can get anybody to learn if you show them something they haven’t seen.”
Krantz said the response to the exhibit, especially from young visitors, has been enthusiastic. Lerille, who owns Borden’s Ice Cream on Johnston, said children love it when it dawns on them she’s Crocodile Dundee.
“It’s amazing to children that a girl could do it,” she said. “It was such an adventure.”
“And worth it, because someone’s going to see it.”