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Godde-led group will never forget the elephants of Sumatra

Barry McNamara
07/09/2018
MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College biology professor James Godde and the four students he recently led to Sumatra will never forget their three-week study-abroad trip to the Indonesian island, especially because of an animal that never forgets.

“I thought the elephants were definitely the highlight of the trip,” Brenna Lobb ’19 of Heyworth, Ill., said of the May study-abroad experience. “They were loyal to their family. They were also very gentle for their size, something I noticed when we were feeding them.”

“The World Wildlife Foundation’s elephant reserve was astounding,” said Emma Johanns ’21 of Burlington, Iowa. “We made treats for the elephants with machetes, which was hard work, but when I got to literally place the food into the mouths of elephants, it was completely worthwhile. They were immaculate – beauty beyond anything a picture could capture. Being able to walk with them, hug their legs, look into their eyes and, especially, feel the 2-month-old baby wrapping its trunk around my hand, was beyond amazing.”

The Monmouth group rode rescue elephants – elephants in danger from local farmers.

“We rode them, washed them and fed them,” said Godde, who had ridden an elephant before. “It was a really awesome day for us.”

Perhaps sensing that Godde was an experienced rider who could handle some difficulty, Godde’s elephant took him for a memorable ride.

“Mine went underwater, so I was up to my chest in water,” he said Godde. “The other two students who rode had no problems. ... When you ride an elephant, you’re so high up, it’s a little scary. It was definitely an experience.”

One of the students who rode an elephant was Jon Cunningham ’19 of Woodstock, Ill.

“At Monmouth, Jon practically lives in the greenhouse,” said Godde, “so the greenhouse we visited in Tesso Nilo National Park was right up his alley. They grow native plants there, then replant them in the wild.”

Also participating in the trip was Shane Herkert ’20 of Verona, Wis.

Part of the Sunda Islands, Sumatra is an Indonesian island in Southeast Asia. One of the trip’s purposes was to study deforestation there. The group also collected leeches for Godde’s ongoing study of the DNA found in leeches from exotic locales. To do that, the group had to access a more remote spot than Tesso Nilo, taking a 20-minute boat ride as no roads or paths led to the area.

“We collected most of our leeches at the other national park we visited, Rimbang Baling Wildlife Preserve,” said Godde. “Right now, they’re sitting in a freezer in the (College’s) Center for Science and Business, waiting for our SOFIA project to start (in August). We’re going to do our analysis then, so we don’t have any answers yet about specific animals’ DNA.”

Godde said the “holy grail” would be finding tiger DNA in one of the leeches.

“The students are always excited to discover the DNA from rare species,” said Godde, who said other possibilities include orangutans, Sumatran rhinoceroses, sun bears and civet cats.

“I was astonished and honestly a little freaked out by how many terrestrial leeches actually were there,” said Johanns. “Their ability to find prey so quickly and bite without the prey feeling it makes them a fairly superior predator despite their size.”

For much of the trip, the Monmouth group was based in Pekanbaru, which is home to Riau University, where a professor who has conducted deforestation research works. The Monmouth group provided him additional data.

“My part of the project was to survey the native people of Sumatra about the wildlife of the area,” said Johanns. “It was great for me that the WWF joined our group for a week of the trip and shared some insight from their experiences. They have cameras tracking wildlife, a flying squad to help assist in elephant safety from poachers, a tiger tracking team, and more.”

In addition to studying nature, the group also learned about Sumatra’s culture.

“When (the WWF staff) took us into some villages, my group and I received a definite culture shock,” said Johanns. “Sumatra is a fairly poverty-ridden place as a whole, but in the eyes of the native people I saw so much joy. They take nothing for granted there and it really gave me a change in perspective on what's truly important.”

“Although there were some major cultural differences, the WWF employees and the villagers we stayed with were probably the most hospitable people I’ve ever met and lived with,” said Lobb. “They are very grateful even with the little they have and they don’t ever complain about their living conditions. I think our country could learn a lot from them.”

Lobb said she observed some similarities between Sumatra and her native Midwest.

“I thought another highlight of the trip was learning how in the past years, the people of Sumatra have become almost like industrial farmers by mass producing and growing palm oil trees – something similar to the Midwest and our corn,” she said.

“Overall, I couldn’t be more thankful for getting to go on this trip,” said Johanns. “I’ve become good friends with those that were on my team. We shared some pretty unforgettable moments together. This trip was eye opening and life changing. I wouldn’t trade having gone to Sumatra for anything in the world. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will truly cherish forever.”