Orangutans and traditional medicine

Rakus feeds on Fibraurea tinctoria leaves a day after he applied the plant mesh to the wound. Saidi Agam / Suaq Project

An orangutan named Rakus hit a rough patch in the summer of 2022. Researchers heard a fight between male orangutans in the treetops of a rainforest in Sumatra, Indonesia; a day later, they spotted Rakus sporting a pink wound below his right eyelid. A chunk of flesh about the size and shape of a puzzle piece was missing. When Rakus, who is most likely in his 30s, belted out a long call, the researchers noticed another wound inside his mouth. 

Over the next several days, researchers followed Rakus at a distance — and saw something so surprising they wound up reporting it in great detail in the journal Scientific Reports. According to their study, published Thursday, Rakus was observed repeatedly chewing on the leaves of a particular liana plant over several days. The climbing vine is not a typical food for orangutans, but it is known to humans as a pain reliever. On at least one occasion, Rakus made a paste from the chewed leaves and applied it to his face. It’s the first time an animal has been seen applying medicine to a skin wound. 

“It’s the first documentation of external self-medication — the application of leaves, I would argue, as a poultice, like humans do to treat wounds and pains,” said Michael Huffman, an associate professor at the Wildlife Research Center at Kyoto University in Japan, who was not involved in the new study.

Rakus’ wound never showed signs of becoming infected, and it closed up within a week. 

The discovery is new evidence that orangutans are able to identify and use pain-relieving plants. A growing body of research suggests other animal species also self-medicate, with varying levels of sophistication. The researchers behind the study think that great apes’ ability to identify medicines and treat wounds could trace back to a shared ancestor with humans. 


Comment: Reading this story, I was reminded of the time my platoon spent in the jungles adjacent to Subic Bay undertaking jungle escape and survival training with the local Negrito tribesmen. They gave each of us a fairly crude bolo knife and led us into the jungle for five days. One of the things we learned was how certain plants would prevent infections, heal wounds and even treat snakebites. I imagine most of that knowledge was gained the same way that Rakus learned his use of a certain liana plant to treat his wounds. We’re not that different.

BTW, the Negritos let us buy those bolo knives upon completion of the five day training course. It was a way for them to supplement their income.


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11 Responses to Orangutans and traditional medicine

  1. leith says:

    Not surprising. Chimps have been known to treat wounds. With insects! As well as using tools and sharpening sticks for weapons.

    On the other hand those long tailed monkeys outside of Subic Bay are a nasty piece of work, begging food, or demanding it. They used to attack children and old folks on Olongapo’s outskirts.

  2. Fred says:

    Given the changing reputation of the medical community it might be time to bring back leaches and leave wounds open. It would certainly fit in with the streets of a few cities.

  3. LeaNder says:

    “It’s the first documentation of external self-medication — the application of leaves, I would argue, as a poultice, like humans do to treat wounds and pains,”

    The first documentation. Really? I find this very, very hard to believe. it feels I stumbled across the issue before many times. No doubt a fascinating subject:

    DW article via Google translate:


    Animal knowledge
    Philine Paul, July 21, 2014
    Dogs, monkeys and even insects know how to help themselves when they are sick. Science author Manuela Lenzen reports on the medical knowledge of her rabbit and other animals in an interview with DW.

    … Is there an animal whose medical knowledge particularly impresses you?

    I was amazed at the knowledge of insects. It is better known that non-human primates have knowledge of medicinal plants. Chimpanzees, for example, travel long distances to find plants that have no nutritional value. They prepare these plants by peeling or folding them and swallowing them whole.

    It is less known that insects also self-medicate. But they do it: for example, they lay their eggs in fermenting fruits to protect them from parasites.

    Can humans learn something from the knowledge of animals?

    Most medicines come from medicinal plants. That’s why researchers are very interested in discovering new plants and their medicinal effects. There are many stories in ethnobotany and ethnomedicine of people who followed sick animals into the jungle and observed which plants they ate. And that they then tried them out themselves and gained new insights into the healing power of plants.

    • TTG says:


      The actual study does acknowledge the rich history of self-medication in the animal world. The NBC News article does link to it. I think it is the external aspect of this self-medication that sparked such interest, although even that is not unique.

      • LeaNder says:

        to be honest, I was simply too lazy to learn how to deal with the ad block detection technology they use. Admiral Sucks! At least in Opera.

        But thanks. I’ll switch the browser.

  4. F&L says:

    Orangutan Drives Her Golf Cart.

  5. James says:

    When I read Frans de Waal’s Chimpanzee Politics I was struck by how little fighting male chimps actually do when, for example, fighting over alpha status. Lots and lots of dominance displays but generally it would take only one actual bite for a chimp to run up a tree and cry.

    It occurred to me that we humans are much more willing to fight than most animals (hunting being a different story), and that part of that is the fact that if an animal in the wild sustains any type of non-trivial wound it is not as if he can go to the nearest emergency room and get it sorted out. Even relatively minor wounds can be fatal.

  6. gordon reed says:

    The way that the rainforest is being destroyed for palm oil plantations and to make way for human habitation means that Orangutans and other tropical species of Indonesia and Malaysia will only be found in zoos.

    Pygmy Negritos with blowguns guarded a compound in the Philippines when my friend Pete was in the UDT/Seals was there during the Vietnam War in which he served.

  7. Stefan says:

    Big pharma will now make a medicine from this particular leaf and charge $500 a pill for it.

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