Get WILD: Local nonprofit unites visionaries to propel global conservation leaders into the future

By on November 15, 2017


Crista Valentino surveys the horizon on a crisp autumn morning, lifting the nearly-frozen lever on her free-range chickens’ cage.

She scans the sky and mentally reviews her daily list of calls with international protégées – Valentino’s term for the folks she mentors — in her conservation initiative.

Today she has chats scheduled with participants in Australia, the Netherlands, Nepal and Canada, and Skype appointments with program ambassadors in Pakistan, Cameroon and Malawi.

She is also working closely with two young kayakers and a journalist on a project to prevent over a dozen dams on the Marañón River in Peru.

“It’s fun to wake up to thirty international messages from amazing activists around the world,” she said. “It reminds me that I’m not alone.”

As she splays chicken feed, an unexpected call comes in from a protégée in Costa Rica.

“I can’t tell you how much better I feel after our chat,” Felix Charnley said. “I was feeling so burnt out, and like I had no idea what I was doing or getting myself into. I wanted to give up.”

“Thank you so much for reassuring me to keep going, even if I don’t have all the answers,” he said. “Can we do it sometime again? I could use it.”

Prior to 2013, Charnley, an England native, had never been to Costa Rica, nor had he heard of leatherback sea turtles.

“When Costa Rican conservationist Jairo Mora Sandoval was killed while attempting to protect leatherback turtle nests, Felix was moved into action,” Valentino said. “A month later he found himself studying in the country, and joined the Sea Shepherd, conducting beach clean-ups and investigating the illegal trade of turtle eggs in the capital of San Jose.”

Only one out of every 1,000 leatherback turtles survive to adulthood, due to the loss of nesting sites, plastic ingestion, egg poaching and commercial fisheries. Charnley is determined to change that.

The first time he relocated a nest, he found it flooded, and all of the eggs lost. 

“25 percent of all life on earth has been lost in 25 years,” Valentino said. “This is the reality the next generation faces; we have to accelerate the learning and leadership development process since there isn’t the luxury of wait-and-see.”

Valentino sees the greatest barriers to real engagement for young people in the conservation sector as a lack of shared experiences, knowledge of how to access available tools and resources, including grants and funding for start-up projects, and lack of a support network to help them troubleshoot their visions.

Coalition WILD Breeds Young Conservationists

Valentino started her international nonprofit, Coalition WILD, [CW] as a grassroots initiative to help resolve some of those issues. She mentors environmental change-makers under the age of 35, which she calls protégées, and connects them with experts around the world.

CW also provides its project leaders and ambassadors with sustained guidance, hosted webinars on leadership topics like fundraising, public speaking, social media and blogging, and published tool kits on how to implement new conservation projects from the ground up.

“We often assist them by co-applying for grants with an organization or individual to help the leaders acquire financial backing and credibility,” Valentino said.

The program’s website and its partner blog, WILD Voices, allow aspiring conservationists to showcase and promote their work. They are also privy to publication options and access to opportunities that arise in the environmental sector.

Although most connections are made virtually, when available, in-person gatherings are also offered to “help build bonds of support and encouragement,” Valentino said.

“We organize international forums for young people to network and develop programs together,” said Valentino. “This builds confidence and a strong voice in our protégées.”

Her project leads span the globe from Colombia to Zimbabwe.

Valentino, an avid mountaineer, works as the director of CW from her Jackson-based office. With a board of 12 volunteers and four interns, she manages CW’s fundraising, grants, programs and private donations that propel her innovative alliance onward, linking conservationists across borders.

Wild Ties to Conservation and Advocacy

Coalition WILD is a core project of the WILD Foundation, a 501c (3) US non-profit based in Boulder, Colorado, working internationally to connect global, national, and grassroots leaders to protect wilderness, wildlife and people.

WILD serves as Coalition WILD’s fiscal agent, and is funded through private donations, grants, partnerships, in-kind support and volunteer hours.

In 2015, WILD Foundation government grants totaled over $116 thousand, and contributions were nearly four million dollars.

A financial breakdown of revenue and expenses are detailed in The WILD Foundation’s annual report posted on their website. In general, nine out of every 10 dollars given to the foundation goes directly to programming. It spends only two percent of revenue on fundraising and seven percent on administration. Program expenses totaled over 89 percent of annual revenue.

A nascent project in its fourth year, CW is working toward growing its own base of donors.

The WILD Foundation and its partners in the Wilderness Foundation Global share the vision created by Dr. Ian Player, a white game-ranger and his Zulu mentor and colleague of 40 years, Magqubu Ntombela.

According to WILD’s website, “They knew that taking people into nature to experience wildness was and is the best way to foster a relationship between people and nature.”

Every four years, The WILD Foundation co-hosts The World Wilderness Congress — an international week-long forum at which environmentalists, government officials, NGOs, business sector entities and nature enthusiasts collaborate to ensure a wilder future.

At the 2009 World Wilderness Congress held in Merida on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, a motion passed to create a more dedicated engagement with a younger generation in future congresses.

Valentino joined the WILD Foundation in 2013 after Vance Martin, President of WILD, approached the Murie Center in Jackson, where Valentino worked at the time, to design a youth commission for the 10th World Wilderness Congress, WILD10.

Martin connected Valentino to the world-renowned conservationist D. Simon Jackson and Jon Mobeck, who served as Executive Director of the Murie Ranch. [Mobeck is currently Executive Director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Foundation.]

“Vance has a unique ability to see potential in people,” said Valentino. “I think he saw a tangible opportunity in the value of young people leading an international youth delegation.”

Though Martin initiated the partnership among Valentino, Mobeck and Jackson, it was Valentino who spearheaded the application and development of Coalition WILD, and singlehandedly launched the grassroots movement at the 10th World Wildlife Congress in 2013, held in Salamanca, Spain.

Valentino is “charismatic, fun, committed and organized,” Mobeck said. “This was abundantly clear to me from the beginning, but was confirmed at WILD10, when she had to shift from a support role to Jon and Simon, to the center seat. She has steadily grown in her skills, confidence, and in understanding the complicated global conservation arena.”

From Long Island to the Tetons

30-year-old Valentino grew up on Long Island before heading to Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, where she studied communications and marketing. After a brief stint in Salt Lake City working at the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Valentino landed in Jackson.

It was in Jackson that Valentino fell in love with the Tetons, mountain sports and the active lifestyle the area offers.

Valentino first found her niche working for the Murie Center in Jackson, and spent over four years in that position.

Although CW takes up more than half her time, Valentino also works on contracted sustainability through the Sustainable Destinations Program with the River Wind Foundation. In that role, Valentino is helping to develop RRR Business Leaders Program. She also co-founded CURRENT, a Jackson-based business working to integrate sustainable practices through strategy and project management.

“The coalition rose up as purely a passion project,” she said. “It took off on its own.”

The CW Mentorship Model

“Young people are increasingly aware of the problems facing our world, but there are too few mechanisms that allow them to become real leaders,” Jackson said.  

“Mentorship is the greatest tool society has to encourage emerging young leaders to seize an innovative idea and translate it to a practicable and effective reality,” Valentino said. “It is no longer enough to simply understand either the science, or the route to implementation; we need change makers who understand the entire process, who can create sustainable shifts.”

In early 2016, former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell’s advisor contacted Valentino with interest in developing a mentorship program in the conservation sector.

Alongside the Senior Advisor to the Secretary, the two developed the programming and support structure. The partner program pairs staffers from the US Department of the Interior — comprised of Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife and National Park Service employees — with a young environmental professional for a one-year mentorship experience.

“We saw the value of having a pilot program, one that was simple and barebones,” Valentino said. “The mentor and mentee meet once a month to track their progress. They trade check-in calls, feedback forms, and objectives and goals.”

At the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Honolulu, Hawaii, Valentino signed the Memorandum of Understanding with Secretary Jewell to seal the deal. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN], 6,000 were in attendance.

Held every four years, the World Conservation Congress “brings together leaders and decision-makers from government, civil society, indigenous peoples, business, and academia to help shape the direction of conservation and sustainable development,” according to the Commission on Environmental, Economic and Social Policy.

The partnership program regularly connects mentors from the US to mentees in the United Kingdom, Africa, Australia, Nepal and beyond through this partnership.

Mentors are guided through innovative project-based approaches to climate change, reforestation, waste management education and anti-wildlife trafficking initiatives.

To date, there are thirteen mentors within the governmental program paired with mentees in the United Kingdom, Western Africa, South Africa, the Netherlands, Australia, Nepal, Canada and the United States.

The partnership is still intact under the new administration, and the second year of the mentorship program will launch in June of 2018.

“The plan is to carry the program into the future, and develop an engaging curriculum,” Valentino said.

It does more than merely enhance a skill set.

“It promotes building a relationship with someone who believes in you,” said Valentino. “It’s a co-mentorship program. Many mentors learn that protégées have similar obstacles to their own. It bridges the gap between generations within the workforce.”

Jackson calls Coalition WILD a living prototype.

“Conservation should be a shared goal that unites humanity. Young activists need a new lens and new voice in a very broken system,” said Jackson. “CW provides a platform that has never existed by situating them in international forums such as the World Wilderness Congress. It is creating a different way to look at what activism and conservation mean.”

According to Coalition WILD’s website, 62 percent of young people feel hopeless about the state of the planet, while 81 percent think they can change the world if given the opportunity.

“CW is a reactive model, a movement and an open platform for young people to generate innovative solutions,” Jackson said. “It helps them take their vision to the floor and think critically about the challenges.”

Coalition WILD Success Stories Cross-Continentally

“If you mold young minds in a way that teaches them to be passionate, informed and care about the world, you give them confidence and grant them a voice,” Valentino said. “Our society and planet will be better because of them.”

Just before WILD10, Valentino issued a challenge ‘How Are You Creating a Wilder World?’ in the form of a competition.

“We received 83 projects from 22 countries in just six weeks, ranging from local to global in scope,” Valentino said. “Entries included ideas such as creating a green space in vacant lots in Los Angeles to saving endangered species in Moldova.”

A judging panel chose Mike Grover from Africa and Rahul Kumar from India as the two winners for the challenge. Their prize was to attend WILD10 — accommodation, flight, and stipend included — to present their work at the conference, and ongoing mentorship to help further their work.

“WILD10 opened doors for him he never would have received if he didn’t attend, and truly catapulted his career,” Valentino said. “Mike was able to get Activating Africa off the ground. And for both, they became the core of our newly established global network.”


“From the moment I met Crista, I was totally on board with CW, and became a founding member, and a board member,” said ecologist Michael Grover, Director of Activating Africa, who helps lead CW remotely.

“With the confidence that I gained from CW and the WILD10 conference, I started my own conservation consulting business focused on technology-based community conservation,” Grover said.

Grover, 31, grew up in Pretoria, South Africa, and has always had a passion for wildlife.

Grover studied ecology and environmental sciences at the University of Cape Town. His thesis work focused on remote sensing evaluation and its effects on elephants, wildlife and rural crop farmers in the Limpopo Transfrontier Park.

That time at university fueled Grover’s desire to work in a Big 5 Wildlife Reserve, where he was involved in game capture and veterinary assistance of wildlife like rhinos, elephants, lions, leopards and buffalo.

Conservation South Africa, the South African division of Conservation International, asked Grover earlier this year to be the landscape director for their programs in the Sabi Sands Private Game Reserve on the western boundary of the Greater Kruger National Park. The park is comprised of over 2.5 million hectares of pristine wilderness.

“It’s my privilege, yet complex job, to ensure that this pristine area remains intact,” said Grover.

When rhino poaching spread into the Sabi Reserve, approximately one rhino a week was lost to poaching.

“It pushed me to look outside the box for solutions to poaching,” Grover said. “This changed my perspective on life, and drove my career choice.”

He later designed a smartphone app with the help of a US-based company, Go Canvas, which ultimately led him to CW via WILD10.

“Although I was trained as an ecologist, we are fighting a war and we are losing the battle. Rhino poaching has increased considerably. It is my responsibility to look after these animals for the future generation,” Grover said.

His company, ‘Activating Africa,’ has been dubbed “Community Conscious Conservation,” and has launched a number of programs and innovative solutions to conservation issues, like poaching and monitoring, overgrazing and land degradation.

Some of the programs include the development of a community crèche (Kindergarten), which offers youth access to safaris. Other programs focus on small enterprise development linked to the wildlife economy, rabies vaccination and awareness campaigns and livestock management.

“CW gave me the self-assurance that young people should not be scared to stand up and take the lead in preservation,” Grover said. “It offered me invaluable exposure through a real media platform for conservation and innovative technology to grow my ideas.”

“CW has the potential to change the face of conservation. Young people have groundbreaking ideas. They need guidance and mentorship by senior leaders in conservation,” he said. “CW links youth and the experienced veterans in the field, enabling them to actualize their dreams and tangibly launch their efforts.”


After Valentino opened a dire message from a South Dakota teacher about her student Abby’s project on endangered species, she was quick to connect the student to Rahul Kumar, coordinating committee member at Coalition WILD.

The fourth grader had told her teacher that she wasn’t hopeful for the future of our planet because she couldn’t possibly make a difference.

Abby wanted to protect the Slow Loris from the threat the species faces by illegal pet trade.

Kumar’s work protects the Slow Loris, which looks like a mix between a bear, a sloth and a raccoon, and is trafficked globally in the illegal pet trade. Kumar also works to protect the pangolin, the most heavily trafficked animal in the world due to the heavy demand for the pangolin’s scales, which are used medicinally, and for decoration and clothing.

“Abby and Rahul ended up forming a friendship across the world,” said Valentino. “Now they send each other videos once a month for encouragement, and Abby collects quarters at school for elephant conservation. Rahul gave her hope. They believe in each other.”

On Rahul Kumar’s 21st birthday, Coalition WILD flew him to Spain to be a part of the Wild10 conference, what Valentino calls “a defining moment.”

Kumar has since become one of the top anti-trafficking agents in India, working on a pan-India project for the conservation of otters and pangolins for Wildlife Trust of India.

“It was all made possible through the network I made at WILD10, and because of my association with the Coalition WILD program,” he said. “I am truly grateful.”

The young leader now acts as a mentor to other rising conservationists. He still communicates with Abby, and the two motivate one another.


Joel D. Augustin  a resident of Ville de Gonaives, Haiti, has been passionate about the natural world since his teenage years.

Augustin is “the epitome of inspiration,” Valentino said.  

Coalition WILD has served as a key resource for his vision.

“I knew I wanted to be a leader in my community,” Augustin said. “We passed the first stage of embryonic development with Coalition WILD, beginning with virtual media and communication.”

Augustin has been a part of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network (GYBN) for the past five years. When the GYBN reached out to him on candidacy to serve as an ambassador to Coalition WILD, he accepted.

He studied agronomy, the science and technology of producing and using plants for various purposes from food, fuel and fiber production to land reclamation at Center d’Agronomie, part of the Saint Barnabas Agricultural College in Terrier Rouge, Haiti.

At 19, Augustin began working in anti-trafficking operations at Sanctuary Asia, which kickstarted his interest in curbing illegal wildlife trafficking.

“He dreamed of making a difference and had the passion, character and commitment. But unfortunately, those qualities alone were languishing in isolation,” said Valentino.

Coalition WILD helped Augustin build a media platform to showcase his work via photos, videos and stories, and provided him a network that garnered him both attention and encouragement from experts around the world.

“Coalition WILD is always there to advise me and encourage me to study alternative solutions, in the interest of the Haitian population,” he said. “Crista and I realized we had a lot of commonalities being environmentalists. Her organization has retooled my visions, and made it possible for me to implement youth actions on the ground.”

As Augustin’s confidence grew, so did his program.

Augustin, now 32, currently heads up Terres des Juene, an international non-profit organization that raises awareness among young people around the world on environmental involvement particularly through the promotion of voluntary actions and local techniques.

They work out of Haiti, Quebec and French-speaking countries in Africa to educate Haitian youth about climate change, address food insecurity and deforestation, and the need to protect land. Within these environments, he mobilizes young people through programs that focus on replanting trees and creating small gardens in deforested areas, and then incentivizes them to monitor the trees to maturity.

The program activities are socio-educational — river cleanup, growing vegetables and preparing seedlings in the kitchen and planting trees. Emphasis is also put on preventative control against the cholera epidemic that plagues the region.

“We help rural kids gradually write a new page of their history,” Augustin said. “We envisage their future alongside them through projects for environmental protection.”

Pushing Forward

Currently, Coalition WILD boasts a member base of 9,528 members, according to Valentino, and project leaders and ambassadors in over 50 countries. It is in the process of developing an accelerator program for 2018.

“It will be more involved than a fellowship,” Valentino said. “The concept is based on ingenuitive tool kits and step-by-step guides to recreate successful conservation models.”

CW is also growing its mentorship program with the Department of the Interior, and publishing regular success stories from emerging professionals from the environmental and communications sectors on its blog, WILD Voices. Contributors span the globe.

“Young people represent hope and not a danger,” Augustin said. “CW gives them the agency to create change so future generations won’t have to pay the ultimate price, the loss of the natural world.”

“When given the opportunity, young people will always rise to the challenge,” said Valentino. “They bring an unrelenting passion. They are not burned out. We need to give them tools to actualize their vision. We need to co-create their story.”

“The greatest thing we can do is to empower young people to believe in themselves.” PJH

Coalition WILD Quick Facts
CW is preparing next generation leaders to tackle conservation challenges in their communities and beyond
CW’s vision is to give young people a voice for change through offering online tool kits for program implementation, webinars on leadership topics like fundraising, public speaking, social media and blogging, key connections, a mentorship program, and co-applications for grants and funding
CW, via WILD, spends only two percent of revenue on fundraising and seven percent on administration. Program expenses totaled over 89 percent of revenue.
12 high level active mentorships through the US Department of the Interior that provide professional guidance and support
40 partner programs achieved this year with individuals, initiatives, NGOs and other conservation groups, including: the United Nations Environmental Program to facilitate the Young Champions of the earth initiative; A Focus on Nature, a UK organization run by young professionals for a campaign called Vision for Nature; and the #NatureforAll campaign, an IUCN global coalition launched at the 2016 Conservation Congress in Hawaii
16 news stories reported by emerging storytellers on the environment and those helping protect it on WILD Voices blog
Emerging opportunities for youth-led conservation programs to work together on large-scale conservation projects like Nature Needs Half — an WILD Foundation initiative to protect and interconnect 50% of Earth’s intact land and seascapes by 2050

About Jessica L. Flammang

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