The following is a guest post written by Sam Lawson. Lawson leads The Nature Conservancy’s projects in northern Kenya.

Those of us lucky enough to be in Kenya last month got a chance to see love in bloom. That’s when members of The Nature Conservancy’s China Board of Trustees — which is already working to significantly expand the scope of our work in China — paid a visit to the Masai Mara National Reserve, the Namanyak Community Conservancy and the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, where we’re collaborating with partners to protect some of Kenya’s most important expanses of natural habitat.

Concern for the environment is growing in China and creating a conservation-committed class of philanthropists. One promising new result of this development is burgeoning Chinese support for efforts to protect critical African habitats.

Of course, that support is only one facet of the thriving bi-lateral relationship between China and Africa. Over the past decade, a trickle of interest has turned into a flood as China has significantly scaled up its investment in Africa. Last year, trade between the two exceeded $100 billion; it’s now estimated that there are around a million Chinese workers in Africa.

That outpouring of interest is affecting countries that boast some of the globe’s most important and fastest-disappearing resources. To ensure Africa’s iconic wildlife continue to thrive in the face of such rapid development, the Conservancy is working to preserve Africa’s last great places, including northern Kenya. This is where we’re working with partners like the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) and the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy to protect critical habitat and wildlife corridors, and we’re striving to engage local people in a conservation movement that improves their lives and livelihoods.

Luckily, the Chinese trustees (and staff) who came to learn more about our work in Kenya found it as inspiring as we do. Weeklong itineraries brought a varied group — including entrepreneurs, artists and young adults — to Kenya, where they got to know the NRT and Lewa. While the habitats and wildlife they observed were markedly different from those of their home country, our conversations identified some important links between our two programs.

Here in Kenya, for example, we’ve partnered with the communities north of Lewa that make up the NRT to protect habitat for plains game, including Grevy’s zebras and elephants, and pilot a livestock purchase program that drives sustainable rangeland management by connecting herders to fair livestock markets. Meanwhile, the Conservancy is working in rural Sichuan Province on a project designed to provide sustainable economic opportunities to communities that surround a panda reserve.

Swap out the Grevy’s zebras and elephants for pandas and you’ve got projects with similar Conservancy DNA. These are projects that trace their roots back to groundbreaking U.S. initiatives, spearheaded by the Conservancy, ranging from the Diamond A Ranch and Malpai Borderlands in New Mexico to the Mississippi and Sacramento Riversprojects that protect nature for the benefit of wildlife and people.

“People here are trying their best to improve their way of life, and their efforts will ultimately pay off,” wrote Norris Ou — a high school student and son of trustee Thomas Ou — while in Kenya. Norris was particularly impressed by the way local communities have rallied to develop an eco-tourism economy that will both fund new environmental protection initiatives and sustainably welcome tourists (and hopefully convert them to the cause).

In turn, we were impressed by all of the young adults on the trip and their commitment to the environment. They recognize that the fates of people in China and Africa are increasingly intertwined, and China’s younger generation clearly feels passionately about doing its part.

In a happy coincidence, the trustees’ last day on Lewa was also Qixi Festival, the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day. Dinner included a series of toasts to the Conservancy, Kenya, China and to each person’s special “Valentine.” Afterward, the whole group — Chinese, Americans and Kenyans —went outside arm-in-arm, stargazing and singing traditional Chinese love songs (well, some of us tried to hum along, at least). It was one more example of the collaborative, passionate spirit that united us all behind the mission to keep Kenya’s people and wildlife healthy.

(Image credit: ©TNC.)

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