Date: 13th August 2016
To Whom It May Concern:
Subject: False allegations against Kristofer Helgen regarding Mt Kenya Expedition in 2015
It has come to my notice that Dr Kristofer Helgen is facing allegations of misconduct from Smithsonian management regarding our Mt Kenya expedition (Roosevelt Re-survey project) in Kenya in 2015. This has shocked me because:
1. I was and I still am the project’s Kenyan counterpart PI at the sponsoring Kenyan institution (National Museums Kenya, NMK), and I was thus an integral part of the project planning and implementing team, and I worked with due diligence to follow all relevant laws and policies and guide the project accordingly.
2. As part of the project leadership, I have never received any communications from the Smithsonian or from Kenyan institutions/persons requesting for a statement to confirm/dispel accusations against Kris regarding Kenyan samples and permissions.
3. As far as I can see, there is no Kenyan institution accusing Kris of misconduct, rather, the accusations are generated within USA by Smithsonian specifically.
I’m deeply shocked and saddened that Kris has been subjected to not one but at least two separate investigations on the same case, for the last 9-months, by SI officials who didn’t find it necessary to consult the Kenyan sponsor, Co-PI, and co-organizer over these ridiculous allegations. This is as disrespectful as it is flawed. Are these investigating persons genuinely after the truth on this case? Or is the case against Kris really about the expedition in Kenya, or are there other motivations by Smithsonian parties? These are the questions my mind has been grappling with since I received the news.
While I find it distasteful to try to answer such obviously false incriminations against Kris, I wish to force myself to speak to these allegations in order to defend his honour as he has done no wrong. I first briefly highlight legal procedures of doing research in Kenya, because Smithsonian officials involved likely have very limited understanding of these matters.
A foreigner intending to undertake research in Kenya has to find an affiliation in a local institution competent in the discipline of that research. In this case, Kris applied and obtained affiliations with NMK (my employing institution). He went further to apply for affiliation with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
With affiliation, one can then apply for government of Kenya research permit under National Council for science and Technology (NACOSTI). Kris did this, obtaining overall research permit/clearance by Government of Kenya (GoK).
Next, in biodiversity research, the community around the site has to give consent in what is called Prior Informed Consent (PIC). The institutions holding mandate too must give consent, in this case KWS since it is a park, provided PIC. Because biological collections were involved, Kris insisted that NMK had to give him a statement of objection or no objection before going to the field. NMK gave him greenlight.
To go and research in a protected area (national park or forest reserve) one has to be cleared by KWS and KFS respectively. Since the Mt Kenya expedition was traversing both park and reserve, Kris applied for both KWS and KFS permission to:
--Enter the Mt Kenya National park and Forest reserve
--Conduct research in these protected areas
--Collect biological samples in the protected areas
With all these permissions, Kris went further and successfully applied for overarching government of Kenya biological sample export permit, under National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).
One would expect that with overall GoK research clearance (NACOSTI) and overall GoK export permit (NEMA), the project is good to go. Kris however insisted on getting Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) with the institution legally mandated to manage biological collection-NMK. He also requested to meet NMK and KWS leaderships to ensure that even individual/personal concerns are fully addressed.
One can ask which project in Kenya has this level of permission! In my experience there is none.
These permits took us many months (nearly two years) to navigate, on top of the ridicule and emotions Kris was forced to contend with. The patience, commitment and devotion Kris put forward in order to obey local laws, institutional policies and to listen to personal concerns were formidable. Charges against Kristofer Helgen regarding this project, in view of these laws, and everyone’s familiarity with his character, have no merit.
Even though Kenya has many agencies looking after biological resources (KWS, KFS, NEMA, KARI, KEFRI), only one is mandated to take care of collections-NMK. Like in any other collection based expeditions, samples from Mt Kenya expedition are legal property of NMK (held in trust for the people of Kenya). It is for this reason that the MTA for this and others have a loan reference number. They are to be returned to NMK at expiry of loan or after concluding research. Specimen collections that Kris exported to USA are property of NMK on loan to SI. I realize suspicions have arisen about intentions over the various versions and drafts of the MTAs involved here at NMK, but I can personally vouch firsthand that Kris had no bad intentions in any action or engagement with me or NMK. I confirm as the project’s sponsor in Kenya that any issues reflect basic misunderstandings of the situation and plans. Kris regularly noted that the various MTA lists might need review and further attention from Smithsonian before export of samples to US. This all seems very strange. Why the Smithsonian should handle a loyal scientist like Kris with such distrust is shocking and very saddening to me. I see no way to understand this.
I am made to understand that Kris Helgen is also accused of illegally exporting wild dog samples from Kenya to the USA. There is no basis for this claim! The wild dog samples involved are various tissues which are NMK collections under my research program. The samples were to be analysed at University of California by myself and Prof Hillary Young, of which there is a parallel approval from University of California. These samples are of course legal (why have they been called illegal?) and are NOT associated with paperwork and permissions for Mt Kenya samples, in any way! To the very best of my knowledge, these samples have not left Kenya for USA or anywhere. Kris helped us with our requests about how to handle these specimens after they were left in Nairobi by Hillary, and he did so with NMK affiliation and permission. How can Kris Helgen be accused of exporting what was not his and was never exported. He was not involved in plans or paperwork for this project. It seems like this is a strange premise meant to pour suspicion on Kris.
It really shocks to hear that Kris Helgen is suspended and is considered for sacking because he is suspected to have tried/attempted to obstruct KWS officer from inspecting the samples collected on the expedition. Whereas it is me who picked a phone and called KWS officer, Priscillar, inviting her to catalogue our samples, it is actually Kris who instructed me to do so. How can he invite this person if he intends to “hide” what should be inspected!! There was never a plan to open frozen tanks for good reasons everyone understands. Are investigators really after the truth in this case? This is an imaginary charge.
The idea championed by Dr Molly McDonough to study genomics or transcriptome of small mammals was associated with two conditions: a) muscle tissues were to be extracted within one minute of knocking down the animal and putting straight to the liquid nitrogen, b) the samples were to be protected from thermal shock. This idea was hatched in middle camp (where Molly and I were based) but enjoyed support in all the 3 camps including by Kris and Hillary. The concern that sample ‘inspection’ by KWS employee could compromise integrity of these samples was therefore discussed in a meeting where everybody attended in the lower camp, and was discussed between Kris, Hillary, and KWS leadership in advance. Everyone was aware of this plan. How this issue has become an accusation toward Kris who was in Australia and how it has become painted as a plan to hide samples from KWS officer is unfathomable.
I categorically and emphatically state that the charges pressed against Dr Kristofer Helgen are baseless, have no merit and are untrue. If investigation had professional aim and respect for Kenyan situation, they would contact me as partner scientist in Kenya. This could have happened almost a year ago and I could explain situation to exonerate Kris, instead he has suffered.
I also wish to reiterate that a report on the Roosevelt Resurvey Project is long overdue for submission to NEMA and NACOSTI here in Kenya. As the Kenyan counterpart for this project, this puts me under a lot of pressure to submit the reports. We cannot proceed because Smithsonian staff and review have blocked any study or further export of specimens. This is damaging to investment from NMK and all partners and making my situation challenging.
I would have thought that everyone knows Kris never breaks rules and is loyal to his museum. He is a senior mammalogist deserving respect. I am appalled by his treatment. I appeal to the leadership of NMNH-SI to at long last look with sense at the true picture, and allow Kris to continue with his research, especially on the Roosevelt samples so that he can send us the report and we can maintain good faith partnerships and move on with the science from this important and long planned expedition and collaboration.
Finally, I advise, as Curator of Mammals at NMK and the Kenyan co-PI in the project that if Smithsonian continues to pursue action against Kris under false pretence, I must insist that NMNH is required to repatriate all the specimens back to Kenya immediately to enable further analysis and reporting. I hope the investigating committee will choose the path of truth and justice over malice and rumour.
Curator and Research Scientist