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Botanical studies link China, Africa TEXT SIZE: A A A

Chinese researcher pursues his dream of joint conservation efforts to protect biodiversity on the continent.

Like their counterparts more than 600 years ago who came with a Chinese fleet under the explorer, diplomat and admiral Zheng He, Chinese scientists are now visiting Kenya for collaborative research initiatives, this time under the Belt and Road Initiative.

Wang Qingfeng, deputy director of the Wuhan Botanical Garden and director of the Sino-Africa Joint Research Center of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, is one of those who have made significant contributions in Africa.

As a botanical researcher, Wang had long dreamed of stepping onto the African land to learn about various species of plants.

An opportunity came knocking in 1998 when as a young lecturer at Wuhan University's College of Life Sciences he was sent to the University of N'Djamena in Chad to help build a laboratory for conservation biology.

In his free time during the one-year stay, he engaged in field work with Chadian researchers and also traveled to southern areas of the country to investigate rice cultivation.

"What impressed me most was the local people's hospitality and friendliness. Whenever I arrived in villages, several Chadian children would help me carrymy bags and specimen folders. They would ask where I was going and what specimens I needed, then help me collect those plants. It was the deepest impression I ever had," he says.

When he returned from Chad, he heard about Robert Gituru, a Kenyan student who wanted to pursue doctoral studies in China but had been rejected by many universities because he could not speak Chinese.

"After some discussion with another professor, we agreed to bring Gituru to pursue his doctoral research at Wuhan University. My efforts to help Gituru were tied deeply to the experiences I had while in Africa," he says.

In 2002, after three years of study, Gituru, who was by now Wang's student, graduated and returned to Kenya to become a lecturer in the botany department of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

Gituru fully understood and supported his mentor's ideas about promoting joint research in biodiversity conservation between China and Africa. He also trusted China's accumulated knowledge of flora. Once back in Kenya, he maintained close contact with Wang, and their joint efforts accelerated.

Opportunity favors the prepared. In 2009, Wang was transferred from Wuhan University to Wuhan Botanical Garden.

"With its more advanced experimental and technical support system and more competent research team, WBG provided me with a better platform to realize my dream," he says.

As Wang's teaching and research advanced, an idea came to him: Would it be possible for China and African countries to do joint research for African flora biodiversity conservation studies?

In biology research, historically, older generations of Chinese scientists could not go abroad to do research, but Wang realized it was becoming necessary to travel to broaden scientists' horizons. The fact that the biodiversity of African flora is different from China's provided a unique study opportunity.

"While African countries need to prioritize biodiversity conservation, most of them lack the advanced technology, experts and research capacity necessary, which makes it difficult to carry out independent research. This is where cooperation comes into play," he says.

In August 2009, cooperation between WBG and JKUAT was established, followed by the signing of a memorandum of understanding. In 2010, the two sides formally signed a cooperative research agreement and set up the Directorate of Sino-Africa Biodiversity Resources Conservation at JKUAT. Gituru was appointed as the director.

Under the project - Biodiversity Conservation Studies in East African Flora - four joint investigations in Kenya and other African countries have been conducted since 2011.

Their findings on Kenya's common and ornamental plants were published in a detailed study in 2012 in both English and Chinese.

The publication filled the academic gaps in biodiversity science in both China and Africa, and sparked research interest in African countries.

"I will continue my joint work with African researchers. I hope that more interest in biodiversity conservation can be cultivated on both sides, so that the cooperation can be carried on by the next generation of scientists. This joint work, I believe, will lead to the sound development of Sino-African relations in the long run," Wang says.

In addition to Kenya and Chad, Wang has also traveled to other African countries, including Cameroon, South Africa and Nigeria.

"I have observed that, along with developing their economies, African countries have attached equal importance to education and research. The number of researchers has been increasing, their quality has also improved and many have studied abroad," he says. (China Daily)

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