No, she’s not a snake charmer. Nor is she some kind of snake whisperer. She is herpetologist Dr. Leticia “Letty” Afuang of UP Los Baños (UPLB). And while she specializes in all things reptilian and amphibian, she has become quite known as the “snake lady.”
Saw a cobra slithering around? Woke up to find a satisfied snake instead of your lovebirds in the cage? With one barangay even named “Maahas” (an area with many snakes), people around LB know whom to call.
“I make myself available because those are valuable teaching opportunities. There are people whose first instinct is to kill the snakes they see because they are afraid. It’s part of my duty as an educator to allay their fears by sharing knowledge,” the pastor’s wife and mother of two says.
But how did she get the moniker in the first place?
Letty attributes it to all her public lectures and speaking engagements, where the interest in herpetology mainly gravitates toward snakes. “Questions about frogs or lizards, for example, are rare. I think it’s really the fear of snakes that makes people so curious about them.” Over time, she became known as UPLB’s resident snake expert.
And despite almost dying from accidental envenomation by a viper during field work in Palawan almost 20 years ago, she continues to advocate for the non-violent handling of snakes.
“This snake was tied up by some people and it was struggling to breathe. I wanted to relieve its pain.” Forgetting that she had a wound in her hand, she went to untie the thrashing viper. Venom got into her wound and within seconds, she felt her hand go warm.
She had to be carried down the mountain, transported in a small boat, then in a mixer that later broke down, and then in another mixer that passed by, before finally reaching the hospital. “It’s a miracle I survived with no antivenom. I woke up the next day like nothing happened.”
A clip from Dr. Leticia Afuang’s video of Tropidolaemus philippensis Gray, 1842 taken in 2009. (Video courtesy of Dr. Leticia Afuang, Animal Biology Divison, Institute of Biological Sciences, UP Los Baños)
From animal lover to teacher-scientist
Growing up on a farm in Isabela, Letty reveals she was always fond of animals. But it was high-school Biology that turned that affinity into a deeper interest in studying them. “I loved that class so much that I was already preserving specimens of lizards, insects, and worms for study. In relation to herpetology, I became fascinated with amphibians first.”
It was only natural for her then to pursue a BS Zoology degree in UP Diliman in the mid-1970s, where her attention shifted to invertebrates. When she graduated in 1979, Letty went to teach at Central Luzon State University (CLSU), Nueva Ecija. And after just one semester, she got a scholarship to pursue a master’s degree.
She wasn’t able to enroll in Diliman because she was late and was advised to try UPLB isntead. She laughs as she recalls how she was given instructions on getting there. “I didn’t know UPLB! But when I arrived, I just fell in love with the place and the people.”
She finished her MS in Zoology, major in Vertebrate Biology, in 1985. By then, she was enamored with wildlife biology and brought her CLSU students to UPLB each summer for training in that field of study. In 1991, just two years after her term as chairperson of the Department of Biological Sciences, Letty resigned from CLSU and returned to UPLB—this time to teach.
She juggled teaching, doing research, family life, and getting her PhD while also dealing with a heart ailment. And in 2003, after around four years, she finally earned her PhD in Environmental Science and Management from UPLB. This time, she specialized in protected areas planning, development, and management, with particular focus on wildlife biology and herpetology, and a minor in genetics and forestry.
Leaving a legacy behind
Letty is turning 60 next year. In a few more years, she’ll be retiring and it’s making her think of her life’s work.
She revived the herpetology program in UPLB, shocked to find out it had been dead for three years when she joined the faculty in 1991. “Wildlife biology can’t be complete without herpetology!”
She enlisted the help of Dr. Pedro Alviola III to team-teach herpetology courses and he agreed. He did the lectures and she took care of the lab work. She also got Dr. Angel Alcala to deliver guest lectures even while he was Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Letty admits that without their support, the program would have been harder to bring back.
Over the last two decades or so, she has been seeing the results of that revival: students’ interest in herpetology continues to increase; more endemic and threatened species have been discovered; changes in taxonomy, reptile assessment being undertaken again; and, the establishment of the Herpetological Society of the Philippines, among others.
In all her work as a scientist—in the lab, in the field, writing papers, undertaking extension projects— she considers the identification of priority areas for conservation as one of her bigger contributions to Philippine biodiversity.
She was project manager of the National Biodiversity Conservation Priority Setting Program, which ran from 2001 to 2002, the result of which has become the baseline data for funding of conservation efforts.
But looking back on her almost 40 years of teaching, Letty Afuang believes that being a mentor to future scientists and experts just might be the best thing she’s done—and still doing—for wildlife biology and biodiversity conservation.