Before she graduated in May with a degree in geography and global environmental studies, Tobey Chase ’20 defended her honors thesis — the research for which she conducted very far from Worcester. She studied the factors related to Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC) in the Dinokeng Game Reserve (DGR) of South Africa; her work was awarded with highest honors.
“Tobey is a very bright student and her thesis work was outstanding — one of the best I’ve advised at Clark,” says geography Professor Florencia Sangermano. “We started discussing her honors work during her junior year and she was able to link her study abroad program with fieldwork at the Dinokeng Game Reserve, funded through the Steinbrecher Fellowship Program and in collaboration with a program called Operation Wallacea.”
Chase knew that historically, when elephants repeatedly break onto properties, they have been injured or even killed by landowners at the DGR. She decided to conduct research on the best ways to mitigate fence breaches in order to reduce HEC in this area.
“The thesis looks at patterns in elephant habitat use and relationships between the number of fence breaches and habitat, fence, and property attributes across the wet and dry seasons,” explains Chase. “It looks for potential deterrents, like increased electric fencing and the use of defensive dogs, and attractants, such as swimming pools or crop fields, in an effort to increase the reserve’s capacity to mitigate human-elephant conflict.”
To conduct all the research necessary to complete her thesis, she spent six weeks in the DGR, and lived at a base camp with six dissertation students.
“Daily, we would wake up pre-sunrise, pound some instant coffee, pile into the back of a pickup truck with all our warmest clothes and blankets on, and watch the sunrise as we huddled on our way to a survey location,” recounts Chase. “When we arrived, we would conduct bird point counts, vegetation surveys, property and perimeter fence surveys, game transects, or elephant behavioral analysis until lunchtime. Then we’d go back out and do more surveying in the afternoon, or stay in and do data entry to escape the heat.”
Through her data collection, Chase found that elephants stay far away from communities and watering holes in the wet season and move in a predictable manner. In the dry season, however, when resources are limited, their movement is more erratic, and the animals are unable to avoid heavily populated areas.
Chase also found that agricultural zones on or near riparian areas (i.e., near bodies of water) correlated positively with fence breaches, and that using an 8-strand fence, a trip wire, increasing the number of strands on a fence, and/or increasing the average voltage of the fence correlated negatively with fence breaches for some elephants in some seasons.
“Tobey’s results have important conservation implications and can inform practices to reduce human-elephant conflict in the Dinokeng Reserve, making important contributions to the managing of the reserve,” Sangermano says.
In addition to conducting research that will have a lasting impact, Chase was able to experience things most of her fellow Clarkies could never imagine.
“Sometimes monkeys would break into our base camp and steal our bananas, which was rude enough since we didn’t get banana restocks often, but they would also poo on our silverware just to rub it in,” says Chase.
On the other hand, she adds, “We’d go for safari drives at dusk and to scenic spots to watch the sun set, then have dinner and play cards or have a fire at night. The stars were some of the best I’ve ever seen. Aside from having to check your sleeping bag every night for cobras, it was all pretty perfect.”
Upon reflection, Chase feels as though the hands-on learning she experienced was just what she needed to solidify and fully use the skills she’s learned in class.
“It’s been important for me to apply my learning to a real-world scenario,” explains Chase. “A lot of topics, especially technical GIS skills, can feel kind of intangible in the classroom. This thesis offered a way for me to ground a lot of the concepts and techniques I’ve learned.”
While data collection and the application of learning was Chase’s favorite part of her thesis process, she also loved being able to reach out to and reconnect with professors about concepts or ideas she couldn’t fully remember or needed assistance with.
“I’m so appreciative of the professors at Clark for being excited about my work and willing to help me, even years after they were officially my professors,” says Chase. “I’ve obviously never written a thesis before — I had never conducted research before, either — but I felt like I had support whenever I needed it, especially from my thesis adviser and beloved professor Florencia Sangermano.”
Chase plans to spend a fifth year at Clark to earn an accelerated master’s degree in GIS, but is unsure of her exact plans after that.
“This thesis and this research, while I am so grateful for it, showed me a lot of the social issues within the field of conservation, so I don’t think I’m necessarily working toward a future in it,” explains Chase. “Instead, I’d potentially like to offer my GIS skills to those working toward climate justice.”