The four children who miraculously survived on their own in the Colombian jungle for more than a month after their plane crashed lived because their grandmother taught them how to fish, hunt and find safe food in the wild, authorities said.
But as the children lay recovering in hospitals, rescuers said their work wasn’t done: a sniffer dog who was key to helping rescuers track down the kids is now lost, according to reports.
The siblings, who ranged in age from 1 to 13 years, were found alive and well in the Colombian jungle this week, 40 days after the May 1 crash of the plane in which they were traveling.
The siblings managed to survive because their indigenous grandmother taught the eldest how to hunt and fish, and which fruits and seeds were safe to eat in the rainforest, according to reports.
But it was a pair of pups named Tellius and Wilson who became the unsung heroes behind the month-long rescue operation, Colombian forces said Saturday.
The two dogs helped the 150 soldiers and others reach the children, according to rescuer Carlos Villegas. The dogs picked up the scent of the lost children, and one may have walked with the youngsters for a bit before leading rescuers to them.
Astrid Cáceres, director of the Colombian Family Welfare Institute, said on Saturday that the siblings had encountered a dog in the jungle, but it was unclear whether it had been Wilson.
Lesly, the eldest sibling, “told us about the puppy,” Cáceres told news outlets.
The children recalled “the puppy that was lost, that they do not know where it was and that it accompanied them for a while,” she added.
While the country celebrates the miraculous rescue of the children, the military’s mission is not yet over.
Wilson, a six-year-old Belgian Malinois, has been missing since Thursday, authorities said, suggesting the pup could have become disoriented during the mission due to the complexity of the terrain, the humidity and the adverse weather conditions.
“The search is not over. Our principle: we leave no one behind,” the Colombian military said on its Twitter account.
“Soldiers continue operation to find Wilson,” it added in his tweet, accompanied by photos of the canine, who led rescuers to tantalizing clues indicating the missing kids were still alive, including a pink-topped baby bottle.
Rescuers also found footprints in the mud, a brown-skinned fruit with what appeared to be a child’s bite marks, and a dirty diaper folded up as if it were to be tossed in a household trash bin.
The kids were on their way to visit their father, who had been living apart from the family over the last several months after he had received death threats from FARC guerrillas in the region, according to a report.
“I want to hug them,” said Maria Fatima Valencia, the grandmother, upon hearing Friday that the children were alive and well. “My heart sighs.”
Military rescuers had recorded Valencia reassuring the children that they would be all right if they remained in one place until rescuers arrived.
The recordings were played on loudspeakers in different parts of the rainforest during the month-long rescue operation, according to reports.
The children — ages 13, 9, 5, and 1 — are members of the Huitoto people who had been traveling with their mother from the remote Amazonian village of Araracuara to San Jose del Guaviare when their Cessna single-engine plane crashed into the jungle.
Two of the children had birthdays while they were lost in the jungle. Tien Noriel marked his 10th birthday and the infant, Cristin, turned one year old.
Their mother, the pilot, and an indigenous leader who was traveling with the group were all found dead in the wreckage on May 16.
The children survived thanks to the skills of Lesly, 13, Colombian officials said. She was taught to hunt and fish from a young age, according to her grandfather Fidercio Valencia, adding Lesly knows which fruits and seeds are safe to eat in the rainforest and which are poisonous.
“They were raised by their grandmother,” said John Moreno, a leader of the Guanano group in Vaupes, in the southeastern part of Colombia where the children grew up. “They used what they learned in the community, relied on their ancestral knowledge in order to survive.”
The indigenous community also believes the traditional spiritual ceremonies they held imploring the jungle to give up the children helped in the rescue, according to reports.
The children are at a military hospital in the Colombian capital, Bogota, where they are expected to remain for up to three weeks, according to reports. On Saturday, the children were visited by Colombian president Gustavo Petro and Velasquez.
“Thanks to Lesly, her little brothers and sister could survive, thanks to her efforts and her understanding of the forest,” said Colombia’s Defense Minister Ivan Velasquez.