Virginia Tech Magazine

Volume 14, Number 2
Winter 1992


Wild animals can't drag her away

by Jeffrey Douglas

As Dr. Betsy Fox sits atop a soaring dune in Namibia's Namib-Naukluft Park, surveying a vast, peaceful vista of undisturbed valleys and gravel plains, her mind returns to the jarring image that brought her to southwest Africa. Hundreds of miles inland, poachers have surrounded a herd of African elephants. The elephants panic, braying and stomping. The natural rhythms of the Kenyan jungle are shattered by blasts of automatic gunfire from AK-47 machine-guns. A half-dozen elephants soon lie dead, and the eerie silence is broken by the guttural whining of chain saws as the poachers hack ivory tusks from deep within the bleeding elephant's jawbones.

As long as Virginia E. "Betsy" Fox can recall, she has wanted to save the animals from those who would kill them for trophies or furs. Somehow, though, Fox ended up studying journalism in college. After graduating from Georgia State University in 1971, she spent several years doing public relations for education associations in Georgia and Virginia. Then she decided to realize her childhood dream of being a veterinarian, although it meant returning to school.

After earning an additional undergraduate degree in biology from Virginia Commonwealth University, she enrolled in the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, where she was graduated with a D.V.M. in 1987.

Fox wanted to complete an internship in zoo medicine at one of the country's major zoos, but those internships are as rare as some of the zoo animals. In June 1987, she accepted a position at a Richmond small animal clinic.

Fox continued to focus on her goal by volunteering with the African animals at nearby Kings Dominion theme park, and planning a trip to Africa, where she believed she could make her greatest contributions.

Although Fox was warned African laws support hiring mainly natives, she reasoned that finding work would be virtually impossible for someone not in the country, so she gathered her savings and left for Nairobi, Kenya, on Feb. 1, 1990.

Her first stop was to see Bonnie Bishop, founder of an Aspen, Colo., organization called "Friends of Africa." Fox volunteered time helping Bishop plan a major fund-raising event for the black rhino, a multi-day extravaganza which was to attract international celebrities, politicians, and business executives.

More than 60,000 black rhino have been slaughtered by poachers and others in the last 25 years, according to the "Save the Rhino Trust" in Namibia. Today, fewer than 3,500 of these defiant, prehistoric-looking beasts roam the African wilderness. They are taken for their horns, which are valued in some countries as an aphrodisiac and fever remedy.

Impoverished natives can make a month's salary by killing just one elephant; but, at the retail level, carved ivory often sells for hundreds and hundreds of times what the poachers were paid, Fox says. In 1990, the Convention on International Trade in Rare and Endangered Species added elephants to the endangered species list, effectively rendering the global ivory trade illegal.

Fox spent several months volunteering at the David Sheldwicke Wildlife Trust in Nairobi National Park after completing her stay with Bonnie Bishop. There, Daphne Sheldwicke continues the work of her late husband by raising orphaned baby elephants. Not weaned until age three or four, the animals are very dependent on their mothers.

"The babies often are so traumatized by having seen their whole family killed by the poachers that they spend weeks mourning," Fox says. "They will search the bushes for their mothers; they wake up at night crying; they will beat their heads against the walls; they can't eat. A lot of times it's touch and go for several months."

At the Trust, each new baby elephant is assigned a surrogate "parent," generally a native Kenyan, who works round the clock with the calf, feeding it milk through bottles and showering it with care and attention.

After a year in Africa without a paying job, Fox had exhausted her savings and knew that her chances of finding work in wildlife conservation were remote. Her choices were clear: either find any job in Africa or return to Richmond.

Luckily, she met Hugh Berry, chief research biologist for the Namib-Naukluft Park, at a wildlife conservation conference in Kenya. Impressed with her capabilities, Berry offered Fox a position as ranger. Since July 1990, she has helped to manage the research station at Gobabeb.

Soon, Fox may transfer north to a ranger position at Etosha National Park. She wrote a research proposal to study rabies in black-back jackals, but it was not funded. Undeterred, she believes her transfer will bring her closer to her goal of using her veterinary skills to care for endangered wildlife.

She's been told they do not hire women for those positions in Namibia. "We'll have to see about that," she says softly. "I feel like I'm on the verge of doing what I want to do, so I'm going to keep on trying."

Jeffrey Douglas is an information director for the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.

Virginia Tech Magazine Volume 14, Number 2 Winter 1992