Dr. Will Duffin – Joint Medical Director & GP
Will is a jobbing Devon based GP, educator and adventure addict. He has provided medical cover for dozens of very different expeditions and projects; including commercial high-altitude treks in The Himalayas and The Andes, a luxury Trans-Siberian private train, a reality TV show in the South Pacific and he has worked with UNICEF out in forgotten corners of Myanmar.
It’s a remarkable story that broke last week: four children aged between one and thirteen were found alive forty days on, after surviving a plane crash deep in the Amazon.
When the children emerged from the wreckage of the single-engine Cessna, claiming the lives of three adults, their prospects would have appeared bleak. Alone and hundreds of miles from help with only a small amount of cassava flour for food, they had to rely on their wits to survive.
Alone in the Perilous Amazon Rainforest
The Amazon rainforest is one of the most spectacular and biodiverse environments on earth, containing 10% of the worlds species, but it is also a formidable and dangerous place.
They would have contended with venomous snakes such as the feared bushmaster, the lancehead and the fer-de-lance, which are all endemic to that region.
In addition, there would have been the threat of mosquito borne diseases including dengue, malaria and yellow fever, especially during the peak of the rainy season in May and June. This would also have brought the added horror of intense downpours, boot-sucking mud and impassable, swollen rivers.
Surviving Beneath the Rainforest Canopy
They subsisted beneath the dark rainforest canopy, a place where everything is constantly wet, small wounds break down into deep ulcers and become infected, and the floor is alive with biting insects.
They would have fought their way through dense foliage and disorientating jungle terrain to the place they were found, five kilometres from the crash site. The jungle there is so dense that the only way they could be taken out was on the winch line of a helicopter.
Treacherous Journey to Civilization
Had they made it to civilisation on the fringes of the rainforest this would also have proved treacherous. It is a lawless and violent place, rife with conflict between armed groups of illegal loggers, settlers and the authorities. Not to mention the wildfires….
The Power of Indigenous Survival Skills
One very significant factor working in their favour, however, was their intimate knowledge of this environment: they were members of the Huitoto indigenous group. This gave them a number of advantages.
They knew how to forage for food including fruits and seeds. They knew what was safe to eat and what would poison them. They knew how to collect safe drinking water and build simple shelters. They knew how to avoid getting bitten by snakes and falling prey to caiman and jaguar. Their immune system would have primed them against a number of different infectious diseases.
A Remarkable Feat and a Lesson for All
It is indeed a remarkable feat of survival, which truly speaks to the rich knowledge that indigenous people have of their environment. I have no doubt that had these children been from Europe or North America, the outcome would have been very different.
We greatly value the teachings of indigenous cultures and peoples when it comes to jungle survival, using many of their skills during our Jungle Medicine course. As we bring healthcare professionals to this extreme environments, we recognise the immense knowledge they have to offer and we continue to strive to learn from them.
If you want to support the protection of Indigenous peoples in the Amazon please visit Survival International.