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How 4 children lost in the Amazon jungle for 40 days were able to stay alive

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Four Indigenous children are recovering in Colombia after spending 40 days lost in the Amazon jungle. The children, including a baby, first survived a deadly plane crash, then managed to stay alive in the rainforest until they could be rescued by the Colombian army. Reporter John Otis has more.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The children were stranded in a patch of rainforest in southern Colombia that was so thick there was no place for the rescue helicopter to land. Instead, as the chopper hovered overhead, troops rappelled down to the jungle floor, then hoisted the children back up to the aircraft. Once on board, doctors treated them for dehydration and malnutrition. The children - ages 13, 9 and 4, plus an 11-month-old baby - are members of the Huitoto Indigenous group. They were traveling with their mother aboard a single-engine Cessna to visit their father. He had fled their village after being threatened by a guerrilla group that he feared would try to recruit his children. However, the Cessna developed engine trouble and disappeared on May 1. Due to bad weather, it took the army two weeks to locate the crash site. There, they found the dead bodies of all three adults aboard the plane, including the kids' mother, Magdalena Mucutuy. The one positive sign was that the children were missing.

OSCAR GARZON: We are not losing hope because we know they are alive.

OTIS: That's Army Lieutenant Colonel Oscar Garzon, who advised the search-and-rescue team.

GARZON: That was the task. We are not going to leave that place unless we find them. No matter what, we will find them.

OTIS: He said the children abandoned the crash site to get away from the dead bodies and to look for food and water. They were well prepared to forage because they were raised in the jungle, says Consuelo de Vengoechea. She's an anthropologist who studied and lived with the children's family.

CONSUELO DE VENGOECHEA: They are always climbing in the trees, running in the trees.

OTIS: They actually run in the trees?

VENGOECHEA: Yes. It's incredible. They run in the trees, taking the different fruits.

OTIS: After leaving the crash site, she said, the kids ate juan soco, a fruit similar to passion fruit, and seeds known as milpeso, which are packed with oil and vitamins. They also found a box of food airdropped by the army. The baby was kept alive with water mixed with yucca flower, a bag of which they found on the airplane.

VENGOECHEA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Because they lacked a baby bottle, de Vengoechea says that Lesly Mucutuy, the 13-year-old girl who was the group's leader, used a leaf to drip the yucca mixture into the baby's mouth. The kids had a mosquito net and a plastic tarp on top of which they piled banana leaves to bunk down at night. Meanwhile, Indigenous volunteers - who knew the jungle better than the soldiers - joined the search. But even they found it tough going, says Alberto Acosta, a volunteer who spent 19 days in the jungle.

ALBERTO ACOSTA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: He says "they saw deer, tapirs, oncillas - which are like small tigers - and lots of snakes. What they didn't spot were the kids, who were apparently spooked by the soldiers and spent much of their time hiding from them. To calm them down, the kids' grandmother recorded a message for Lesly, the 13-year-old, in the Huitoto language that was broadcast into the jungle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Huitoto).

OTIS: She says, "Lesly, this is your grandmother. I'm asking you a favor. You must remain calm and stay put." For further inspiration, the Indigenous volunteers took ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew made of jungle plants. They figured the resulting visions might point them in the right direction. In the end, says Lieutenant Colonel Garzon, it was a Belgian Shepherd rescue dog named Wilson who first came across the kids.

GARZON: The kids - they were telling us that they were joined by the dog, and it was a good sign for them because they said someone is here.

OTIS: Finally, last Friday, the kids' 40th day in the jungle, the human search party found them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: In this video of that moment, you can hear them chanting and giving thanks that all four children are alive. Now the kids are being treated here at the military hospital in Bogota.

FIDENCIO VALENCIA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Their great uncle, Fidencio Valencia, says they're still weak, but that the color is returning to their faces. As for Lesly, the heroine who carried the baby through the jungle and kept her siblings alive, she still has a bruise on her forehead from the airplane crash.

VALENCIA: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Valencia says, "I tell her, don't worry, all this will be over soon, and you will again be very beautiful."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.