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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Wednesday, February 01, 2023

entry arrow11:32 PM | National Scientist Angel C. Alcala, 1929~2023

He was many things to different people: teacher, researcher, biologist, university president, environmentalist, DENR head honcho, family man. For colleagues and mentees, he was a relentless driving force that compelled them to reach the highest aspirations in research and publication, and as Dr. Laurie Raymundo declared in her memories of the man: “He was difficult, demanding, and exacting and he taught me that nothing less than the best you can do is acceptable.” He was also an icon, and for many people in Dumaguete, where he lived since his student days in Silliman University, he was a figure of local pride: a National Scientist.

Angel Chua Alcala was born on 1 March 1929 in Cauayan, Negros Occidental to Crescenciana Chua and Porfirio Alcala, and grew up in the small coastal barrio of Caliling, working alongside his father who worked as a fisherman at the nearby agricultural fish ponds, supplying milkfish to the local community. Regarding the sea as refuge and resource was a huge part of his upbringing, and probably fostered a lifelong passion for biology. He attended Kabankalan Academy, and moved to Dumaguete to earn a degree in biology from Silliman University from where he graduated, magna cum laude, in 1951. He then declined acceptance to the University of the Philippines College of Medicine in order to assist his family financially by going to work. He began teaching at his alma mater not long after, and occasionally assisted in biological fieldwork for Sidney Dillon Ripley and Dioscoro Rabor. In 1953, they collected the only known specimen of the Negros fruit dove.

While teaching at the Biology Department, Alcala would meet Walter C. Brown, a professor at Stanford University who came to Silliman University on a Fulbright fellowship. Brown took Acala under his wing, and they worked together on several biology publications, went on numerous field trips, and collected data for research. Brown helped Alcala begin his groundbreaking work on herpetology, which is concerned with the study of amphibians and reptiles. Together, they became the authors of “Observations on the Amphibians of the Mount Halcon and Mount Canlaon Areas,” a paper published in the 1955 edition of the Silliman Journal.

Alcala was granted a Fulbright/Smith-Mundt Fellowship to study at Stanford University, where he earned his master’s degree in biology in 1959. It was in Stanford where he found the need to apply his expertise in biology to the larger needs of his country: “My fellow graduate students were all supportive of the application of theoretical knowledge to practical problems in the country. My faculty advisers of the Graduate School were working on Philippine biodiversity and some of the graduate students were working on similar topics… They inspired me to consider for further studies the marine fauna of the Philippines,” he told Rappler in 2014.

In 1964, Alcala returned to Stanford for doctoral studies and two years later, he became an associate professor at Silliman University. He was also accorded an honor doctorate from both the Xavier University and the University of Southeastern Philippines. He soon became Vice President for Research at Silliman, but resigned in 1988. Three years later, he returned to the university to serve as President. After two years, he also resigned that post to serve as Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources from 1992 to 1995, and later as Chairman of the Commission on Higher Education from 1995 to 1999. He also served as consultant on marine and aquatic projects under the United Nations Environment Programme, the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank Global Environment Facility, the Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, and the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute. He served the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research and Development as an executive director.

He was the principal Filipino scientist in a research program regarded as an outstanding contribution to Philippine biological sciences which comprised studies on local land vertebrates and the marine biodiversity of the country, which involved ecology systematics and conservation biology based in Silliman University since 1955. The program produced empirical scientific data put to practical use in terms of special development and academic programs at the university level. The research collaboration resulted to substantial publication outputs of 169 scientific papers as well as books. Alcala authored either by himself or as first author of 86 [51%] of the articles and books on the program. He is also the first Filipino to put together the most comprehensive studies on Philippine amphibians and reptiles, with minor contributions to birds and mammals. His fieldwork from 1954 to 1999 resulted to the identification of 50 more species from the 400 already known species of reptiles and amphibians. Because of his work, conservation programs in the Philippines are now well established.

Alcala also participated in the Australian-ASEAN marine project in the mid-1980s to the early 1990s. The Silliman Marine Laboratory, which he founded in 1973-74, has been active in research on marine protected areas, fisheries and marine biodiversity, mariculture, and conservation of Philippine plant and animal species. His marine science publications consist of about 80 papers on coral reef fish, marine reserves, long-term effects of protection on marine biodiversity such as corals and top predatory fish. Most of these papers have been published in refereed, international journals and books. In 1977, he set up the first artificial reef in the Philippines in Dumaguete, and then, seeing the degradation of coral reefs all over the country, he began to set up a series of marine protected areas [MPAs], first in Sumilon Island off southern Cebu, and then in Apo Island.

The establishments of MPAs is now considered one of Alcala’s greatest legacies. As marine biologist Rene Abesamis once wrote: “Alcala has studied MPAs since 1973. He was the first biologist to establish an experimental MPA in the Philippines, at Sumilon Island, with the idea of increasing the fish catch of small-scale fishers. This occurred at a time when reef fisheries resources were beginning to decline due to unsustainable fishing practices and increasing human pressures. His pioneering work involved monitoring the daily fish catch of about 100 fishers that fished the coral reef surrounding Sumilon. He demonstrated that as long as the MPA (25% of total reef area) was protected from fishing, fishers had sustainable fish yields outside the MPA (75% of total reef area). However, protection of the Sumilon MPA failed after 10 years, which resulted in dramatic declines in fish catch. This led him to hypothesize that sustainable fish yields during the period of protection occurred because of ‘spillover’ or net export of adult fishes from the MPA to reef areas open to fishing. Further studies at Apo Island (not far from Sumilon), where he helped set up the first community-managed MPA in the Philippines in 1982, confirmed this hypothesis.”

For all these hard work, he was amply rewarded with recognitions and accolades. He received the Outstanding Sillimanian Award for Biology in 1988, and was also recipient of other honors, including the Outstanding Oriental Negrense Award in Science and Technology by the Province of Negros Oriental in 1991, the Gregorio Y. Zara Award in Applied Science by the Department of Science and Technology in 1991, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Public Service by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation in 1992, the Field Museum Founders’ Council Award of Merit in 1994, the Outstanding Fulbright Award in Ecology by the Philippine American Educational Foundation in 1996, the Outstanding Dumagueteño in Science and Technology by the Dumaguete City Government in 1998, Honorary Fellow by the California Academy of Sciences in 1999, and Professor Emeritus for Biological and Marine Sciences by Silliman University in 2007.

In 2014, he was named a National Scientist of the Philippines.

Even in his twilight years, he continued to be of service to the community. He was a member of the Board of Trustees of Silliman University and was Director of the Silliman University-Angelo King Center for Research and Environmental Management. He was also Director of the Commission on Higher Education Zonal Research Center at Silliman University. But he was fully aware of the specific mark he made in his years of passionate work for biology and the environment: “Work on the conservation and management of the unique biodiversity, for which the Philippines is known, has given me a feeling of satisfaction that my academic degrees have been useful not only to me and my family but also to the country,” he once said.

Alcala married Naomi Lusoc in 1952, with whom he had six children. He died in Dumaguete City on 1 February 2023.

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