Wally Van Sickle is an unstoppable force of a man. He has tackled giant armored armadillos in Brazil, has swam the Gulf of California to photograph the fingerprint-like patterns on the backs of whale sharks, and has helped train Anatolian Shepherds, livestock guardians to prevent big cat attacks in South Africa. He’s climbed the peaks of mountains and plumbed the depths of oceans, all in the name of biodiversity. Each adventure marks a moment where Wally has impacted the future of the planet. However, in a treasure chest of lifelong conservation adventures, Wally Van Sickle’s crown jewel in exploring biodiversity is IDEA WILD, a leading-edge nonprofit that’s equipping our planet’s heroes with the technology they need to save our world. Wally’s adventures with IDEA WILD began over thirty years ago on a small island chain in the Great Barrier Reef, in the heart of a cyclone.
It was 1990 and Wally Van Sickle had found himself in an unusual spot. He was stranded on Lady Musgrave Island, a small crescent-shaped island, approximately thirty-five nautical miles off the coast of Queensland, Australia.
Fresh out of graduate school and festy from gallivanting around the mainland for four and a half months of birdwatching, Wally and his two friends had decided to wrap up their grand post-grad adventure on the Great Barrier Reef with a marine experience.
The remote Lady Musgrave Island is only protected by the reefs that lurk below the ocean’s surface with nothing but hundreds of miles of ocean between it and New Caledonia. To reach it, Wally and his team had needed to hire a boat and crew to drop them off, chartering for them to return in a fortnight.
It was only a week after they arrived when the cyclone struck. The boat crew was unable to traverse the cyclone-battered sea to pick them up again. Of course, being stranded on a remote island wasn’t anything unusual for Wally. What was unusual in this instance was that Wally, the ultimate outdoorsman, and adventurer, had found himself trapped indoors as the storm raged outside in the pre-internet era of 1991. The man literally had nothing to do. So, Wally’s mind started wandering. He began to contemplate what his calling was, where he had been, and where he was going. More importantly, his mind kept circling back to something he had seen time and time again.
When Wally had been working in graduate school as a biologist researching mountain lions, he had everything he could ever want equipment-wise. He had access to technicians and radio telemetry. He could get helicopters, airplanes, trucks, and snowmobiles.
This was a stark contrast to what he would see working in wildlife conservation. The first time he noticed the discrepancy was back in ‘86. It had been his first experience as a volunteer in Kenya, working with an ornithologist. Far from the flashy equipment Wally was used to, the ornithologist’s equipment to capture and tag the birds was completely substandard. Of course, it was. The entire conservation project was being funded from the ornithologist’s own pocket.
Then the same thing happened in Australia. Wally had been working with a mammalogist studying Australia’s nocturnal marsupials with a spotlight at night. In the middle of the project, his spotlight died, plunging the entire project into darkness. The mammalogist couldn't afford a new one. Wally noticed these shortcomings for conservationists everywhere, in Australia, in Belize, in Kenya. He realized that a lot of the people who were working on the frontlines to save our planet – smart, dedicated scientists – were horribly ill-equipped to do their jobs.
As he sat on the island, waiting for the storm to pass, Wally Van Sickle kept revisiting these moments, pondering the discrepancy. It just didn't seem like the way it should be. In his mind, there needed to be a nonprofit to make sure these wildlife heroes had the equipment they needed.
That is when Wally decided to start IDEA WILD.
GETTING STARTED IN JACKSON HOLE
It began on the island, but it would take another year before Wally got any traction behind his idea. He had struck out for Wyoming with his now-wife Joni Triantis, an equally determined and passionate conservationist for whom The chilobrachys jonitriantisvansicklei tarantula is named. At that time, Wally was working on publishing his mountain lion research and he had taken up giving wildlife tours in Jackson Hole during tourist season.
The duo settling in Wyoming was serendipity for two reasons. The first was that, in the shoulder seasons, Wally and Joni would return to the University of Wyoming in Laramie. The university happened to have an office entirely dedicated to starting nonprofits. With their guidance, Wally navigated the difficulties of starting a nonprofit: creating bylaws, writing the articles of incorporation, filing for IRS standing, and forming a board. By 1991, Wally had officially and legally started IDEA WILD.
The second bit of serendipity, and the main reason Wally took the touring job in Jackson Hole, was because it put him in daily contact with people who both cared a lot about wildlife and who had money to spare. Jackson Hole was and still is the richest place in the country. He figured if they cared about his cause and had resources, they might donate
THE TEN DOLLAR CHECK
To spread the word, the duo wrote letters to the people Wally had toured around Jackson Hole. They physically wrote over two hundred letters and sent them out to what would become IDEA WILD’s first mailing list. In the era of no internet, no smartphones, and no email, contacting people out of the blue was a lot more tedious. Still, even after hours and hours of handwriting letters, when Wally dropped those two hundred letters at the post office, he was on cloud nine. He knew he had such a great idea; he was convinced thousands of dollars would be pouring in to support it. After all, this nonprofit addressed such a severe need to save the planet!
He then waited.… and waited.
It took about a week of nothing before the shine came off. Then another before Wally began to really doubt himself. The silence seemed to echo on and on. Every day he checked the mailbox. Each time that there was nothing, he felt his doubt grow a little more. In retrospect, the echoing silence only lasted about two weeks, but as anyone on tenterhooks about a life dream can attest, they were some of the longest weeks of Wally’s life.
Then, one day, there arrived a small envelope addressed to Rob Gibson. Rob Gibson was a wildlife fisheries biologist and a good friend of Wally’s. Inside the small envelope was a ten-dollar check: IDEA WILD’s first donation. The relief was instantaneous, and his excitement was renewed. Someone believed in his idea. Throughout the years, IDEA WILD has gotten many more donations, but Wally Van Sickle has never forgotten the significance of that first ten-dollar check.
Once the ball started rolling, it didn’t stop. After the ten dollar check came the first hundred-dollar check. After that, the first thousand-dollar donation, which Wally fondly recalled, came from a couple in Norway whom he had taken on a wildlife expedition in Jackson Hole. With money trickling in, IDEA WILD started to grow. As IDEA WILD grew, so did the number of applications for support. They needed to upgrade their fundraising methods.
Now known for their wild and impactful fundraisers, it’s bizarre to think of the younger IDEA WILD stumbling as the team perfected its fundraising strategy. Nowadays IDEA WILD raises hundreds of thousands annually for conservationists around the globe. At their events, donors get to directly bid on conservation projects, up to and including hand-delivering the equipment themselves to these bio-diverse hotspots around the world.
Back in the early days, the first events were more traumatic than anything. The powerhouse duo found themselves learning some harsh lessons early on about the pitfalls of fundraising. They also found it difficult to fund all the projects that needed equipment. There were just so many conservationists who needed support. The game changed in 2000. At the start of the new millennium, Wally was invited to a Conservation International Meeting in Guatemala.
There Wally found himself speaking in front of a crowd that included the likes of Hollywood star Harrison Ford, industry tycoon Gordon Moore, and John Swift of Conservation International. Getting IDEA WILD’s message out to these people had a dramatic impact on their resources. With growing donors and higher donations, IDEA WILD was reaching more conservationists than ever before.
After another six years of steady growth, IDEA WILD hit another huge turning point. In 2006, the owners of Fort Collins's iconic Nature’s Own donated their building to the nonprofit. This meant that Nature’s Own would provide a steady stream of income to IDEA WILD through rent payments. They have continued to support IDEA WILD in this way for over fifteen years. After Nature’s Own donated the building, it leveled out the rollercoaster for sourcing funding and allowed the nonprofit to really flourish in the years that followed.
Last year, IDEA WILD celebrated thirty years as a nonprofit. It gave Wally Van Sickle a moment to reflect on how much his dream has grown. In that time, they’ve created wildlife reserves, brought species back from the brink of extinction, and helped idealistic biologists just starting their careers move into prominence for their conservation efforts. IDEA WILD has had a profound global impact with plans to continue to do so for many years to come.…and it all started on a tiny island in the middle of a cyclone.
If you’re interested in learning more about IDEA WILD, please visit their website at www.ideawild.org.
Wally Van Sickle is an unstoppable force of a man. He has tackled giant armored armadillos in Brazil, has swam the Gulf of California to photograph the fingerprint-like patterns on the backs of whale sharks, and has helped train Anatolian Shepherds, livestock guardians to prevent big cat attacks in South Africa. He’s climbed the peaks of mountains and plumbed the depths of oceans, all in the name of biodiversity.