Bilal Butt

10 Questions: Associate Professor Bilal Butt

Bilal Butt’s research aims to answer questions about how people and wildlife are adapting to changing climates, politics, livelihoods and ecologies in sub-Saharan Africa.

Why Africa?

I was born and raised in Kenya. I went on my first “safari” at 6 months old, so you could say it’s a hugely important part of who I am, and what I continue to do. As I grew up and traveled to national parks with my family, I began to realize there was a deep conflict between humans and wildlife. I wanted to understand this conflict better. With my research, I bring a political, spatial and historical context to better understand these complex issues.

You describe yourself as an Africanist, geographer and political ecologist. How do these titles work together?

As an Africanist, geographer and political ecologist, I try to weave different narratives together. I utilize cutting-edge research to tell a more accurate story to inform conservation and development efforts and alleviate human-wildlife conflict. For example, a big issue in Zambia’s Kafue National Park right now is with elephants. From the human side, the concern is about human safety and crop destruction. From the conservation side, it’s about poaching and the sale of ivory. Both stories are important, but it’s important to adequately contextualize them.

Tell us about an application of technology in your work.

In one project, we wanted to better understand pastoralists’ livestock grazing in national parks—their movements and patterns within and around protected areas. There was concern that livestock grazing had a negative impact on these lands.

We attached GPS to cattle and collected a data point on them every 10 seconds, following them over an extended period. We tracked them over wet, dry and drought seasons. What we found is interesting; the herders were conscious about the grazing locations, utilizing different parts of the landscape at different time periods. These findings demonstrated the remarkable resiliency within the pastoral livelihood system in adapting to changing environmental conditions.

What is the most adventurous thing you’ve ever done?

My early interests were the equatorial alpine mountains. I’ve gone on multiple long expeditions to these places, which are truly incredible. Gigantic flowers (Lobelias), glaciers, deep valleys and an occasional chase by wildlife...what could be better?

What is your favorite SEAS moment?

The first day of class—easily. It’s such a magical moment. Everyone comes to class slightly confused about what it is about, and they’re not exactly sure what to make of it. I love teaching students to think critically—it’s a skill that no one can take away from you. Once you have it, it stays with you forever.

What is the best advice someone gave you?

“Go slowly,” which basically means to take your time to understand.

Who is your biggest hero?

I don’t have any heroes. There are several people whose work, I think, has been admirable: Richard Holbrooke, Roméo Dallaire and Sérgio Vieira de Mello to name a few.

What is the most-used app on your phone?

BBC News.

What is your favorite outdoor activity?

Hiking. And doing research in the field. My personal and work life are very much intertwined.

Describe your first job.

Your job when you’re a kid is to be a kid—to explore! My dad helped fuel my passion for the pursuit of discovery.