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  • Denis Pepin

The Jungle Doctor: Rakus, the Orangutan Who Healed Himself

In the heart of the verdant wilderness, Rakus, the sagacious orangutan, delicately holds a leaf of healing—embodying the untold secrets of the forest’s natural remedies.
In the heart of the verdant wilderness, Rakus, the sagacious orangutan, delicately holds a leaf of healing—embodying the untold secrets of the forest’s natural remedies. (CyberNesco)

The Sumatran rainforests are a rich reservoir of biodiversity, encompassing everything from towering arboreal giants to elusive fauna. A recent study, published in the journal Scientific Reports, has revealed an uncharted behavior among Sumatran orangutans:


An intriguing revelation has emerged from Gunung Leuser National Park: the possible existence of a natural pharmacy utilized by animals. In an extraordinary event witnessed by researchers in June 2022, a Sumatran orangutan, known as Rakus, was observed applying a specific medicinal plant to a facial injury. This novel observation illuminates the captivating realm of animal self-medication and the potential for knowledge exchange between humans and our primate kin.


A Fight and a Wound: The Spark of Self-Care


Rakus' story begins with a skirmish. Researchers heard the telltale "long calls," a sign of dominance battles between male orangutans. The next day, Rakus emerged with a fresh wound on his right cheek, a testament to the recent fight. This injury, roughly the size of a puzzle piece, posed a significant health risk. Open wounds in the wild are vulnerable to infection, potentially leading to severe illness or even death.



The Plant with the Golden Touch: Akar Kuning Steps In


But Rakus wasn't about to succumb passively. In a remarkable display of self-preservation, he took matters into his own capable hands. Researchers observed him meticulously picking and chewing the leaves and stems of a specific plant – the Akar Kuning, or yellow root (Fibraurea tinctoria). Notably, this plant isn't a common part of the orangutan diet. Yet, Rakus displayed an almost instinctive knowledge of its potential benefits. He meticulously chewed the plant, creating a makeshift poultice, and then applied it directly to his wound, effectively fending off the flies that had begun to gather.


From Poultice to Recovery: A Testament to Nature's Pharmacy


The results were impressive. Within five days of applying the Akar Kuning, Rakus' wound began to show signs of healing. Remarkably, after a month, there were no visible signs of infection. This rapid recovery aligns perfectly with the known medicinal properties of Akar Kuning. Studies have shown the plant to possess antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and pain-relieving properties – a veritable natural first-aid kit.


A First for Science: Unveiling the Animal Pharmacy


Rakus' behavior represents a scientific first – the documented instance of a wild animal deliberately using a medicinal plant to treat a specific injury. This observation raises a multitude of intriguing questions. Did Rakus learn this behavior from his mother or other orangutans in his group? Or is this a form of innate knowledge passed down through generations?


The rarity of this behavior adds another layer of intrigue. Orangutans, particularly the critically endangered Sumatran subspecies, rarely suffer severe injuries in the wild. This could explain why such self-treatment hasn't been documented before. However, Rakus' case highlights the potential for a much broader phenomenon. If orangutans possess this knowledge, it's possible that other animals – chimps, elephants, or even birds – might exhibit similar behavior. This opens doors for further research into the fascinating world of animal self-medication.



Echoes of a Shared Past: The Human-Orangutan Connection


The discovery also adds a new dimension to our understanding of the relationship between humans and our closest primate relatives. Humans have a long history of utilizing plants for medicinal purposes. Rakus' behavior suggests that this ability might have roots deep in our evolutionary past. Perhaps a shared ancestor possessed this knowledge, and it has trickled down through the generations, albeit in a more refined form for humans.


Beyond Rakus: A Call for Conservation and Exploration


Rakus' story is not just about a remarkable animal; it's a call to action. The rainforests of Sumatra are a treasure trove of natural resources, many of which remain unexplored. Studying animal behavior like Rakus' can guide us towards new discoveries in the realm of natural medicine. This, in turn, can benefit both wildlife conservation efforts and the development of new pharmaceuticals.


However, the future of this rainforest pharmacy is under threat. Habitat loss due to deforestation and poaching are pushing Sumatran orangutans to the brink of extinction. Protecting these intelligent creatures and their rainforest homes is crucial for unlocking the secrets of the natural world and ensuring the well-being of all life on Earth.


Conclusion: A Glimpse into a Hidden World


Rakus' story is a testament to the intelligence and resourcefulness of animals. It opens a window into a hidden world of animal self-medication, a world where nature itself serves as a pharmacy. As we continue to explore the rainforests and delve deeper into animal behavior, we may uncover even more remarkable examples of this ancient knowledge. By protecting these ecosystems and their inhabitants, we can learn from nature's wisdom and ensure a healthier future for all.



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