Children of the Jungle

Miracle, miracle, miracle, miracle.

— Radio Transmission

An example of total survival which will remain in history.

— Colombian President Gustavo Petro

On 1 May 2023, a Cessna 206 departed Araracuara Airport in southern Colombia with seven humans aboard. In addition to the pilot, Hernando Murcia Morales, and a local Indigenous leader, Herman Mendoza Hernández, a mother boarded the small aircraft with her four children, aged 13, 9, 4, and 11 months. The group hoped to fly 220 miles north to San José del Guaviare.

The early morning flight started normally, but, at 7:34 AM local time, Morales signaled engine failure before radio contact with the vessel ceased. Deep into the Colombian Amazon, the Cessna tumbled. Hope for survival seemed slim, but the nation’s Air Force scrambled airplanes and helicopters to search for the missing craft.

The region of rainforest in which the plane crashed is old and dense. Authorities were unable to locate the wreckage for two weeks. On this timetable and in this remote location, hope for survival morphed from slim to astronomically low. 
The crashed Cessna - photo from Reuters

Yet, when search teams reached the site, what they discovered pointed to the possibility of an incredible tale.

Accompanying the plane were the bodies of three people, the trio of adults. Extraordinarily, the children were absent from the area. Further, the scene did not present a grisly fate of disintegrated remains. Rather, the evidence pointed to a scenario no one envisioned. Strewn about the area were footprints – tiny ones – the remnants of fruit, partially eaten by humans, and lids to baby bottles

Had the children really survived not only the crash but a fortnight in the jungle without adults?

Rescue teams board a helicopter - photo from Associated Press by Fernando Vergara

A massive search ensued.

More than 150 troops and 200 local volunteers began to scour the forest for the children. Despite the positive evidence, the mission to locate them was arduous, as the virgin growth in the region limited visibility to just 60 feet at times. Aside from the unforgiving terrain, the Amazon is populated with all sorts of moving hazards: snakes, jaguars, and ravenous biting insects. How could a group of children, the youngest under one year, survive in this climate?

As it turns out, these children had an advantage that gave them a shot.

The children and their family are Witoto (also spelled Huitoto or Uitoto), an Indigenous people of the Amazon. Colombia’s President, Gustavo Petro, called them “children of the jungle” and he meant it quite literally. The Witoto teach their young to survive in the jungle from a young age, fostering the ability to hunt, fish, and gather. They learn to discern which plants and fruits are edible and which are poisonous. An aunt of the children relayed to reporters that Witoto families would play “survival” games, in which they set up “camps” with the purpose of remaining alive in the Amazon. She noted that the oldest girl, Lesly, knew how to take care of babies.

If any group of children could survive the Amazon, it might be this batch.

A cross-section of the jungle - photo by Reuters
Footprints in the mud - photo by Reuters

As rescue teams rummaged the forest for the children, they kept encountering signs their experience in the jungle might just pay off. Rudimentary shelters cobbled together with branches and hair ties. Husks of avichure fruit. More and more footprints. Despite the constant indications, they could not track down the children.

They brought in loudspeakers and blasted the voice of family members. They dropped leaflets with tips and boxes of food into the verdant void. Forty days after the crash, authorities continued to search, believing the children were alive.

On 10 June 2023, a military radio buzzed to life: “Miracle, miracle, miracle, miracle.” The children had survived and a team, guided by search and rescue dogs, finally located them. They were emaciated and blistered with mosquito bites, but relatively healthy. Extraction proved difficult. In the end, they were hauled up by helicopter.

As incredible as this story already is, the details that emerged from the children weave an even more remarkable and heartbreaking tale.

Though two people died on impact, the mother of the children survived the crash. She lived for four days before perishing of injuries from the accident. She instructed the children to leave to find help.

The group managed to rescue some cassava flour from the plane, which sustained them for a while. From there, they subsisted on seeds and fruits. Staying near the river, they used bottles to remain hydrated. Somehow, they nourished an 11-month-old infant. For 40 days. Simply astounding.

When they were located, the children relayed two things to the rescue crews: their mother was dead and they were famished. The plight these children experienced is heartbreaking. The emotions of their mother, mortally wounded and worrying about their safety, must have been excruciating. To watch your parent, severely injured in the jungle with no help in sight, is something I cannot imagine.

That they are alive today, however, is a testament to the spirit and the connection we can have with nature if we foster it. These types of stories rarely end with survivors. President Petro called them “an example of total survival which will remain in history.” When four children under the age of 13 emerged from the Amazon after 40 days on their own, these words are hardly hyperbole.

The children rescued - photo by Reuters
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