Social valuation of biodiversity relative to other types of assets at risk in wildfire

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Environmental crises, such as wildfires, can cause major losses of human life, infrastructure, biodiversity, and cultural values. In many such situations, incident controllers must make fateful choices about what to protect—and hence what to abandon. With an online representative survey of >2000 adult Australians, we investigated social attitudes to this dilemma. We used best–worst scaling to assess preferences across a set of 11 assets representing human life, infrastructure, biodiversity, and cultural values. Survey respondents overwhelmingly prioritized a single human life (best–worst score of 6647 out of possible score ranging from −10695 to 10695), even if that choice resulted in extinction of other species. Inanimate (replaceable) objects were accorded lowest priority (best–worst scores of −4655 for a shed and −3242 for a house). Among biodiversity assets, respondents prioritized protecting a population of the iconic koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) (best–worst score of 1913) ahead of preventing the extinction of a snail (score −329) and a plant species (−226). These results variably support current policy in that they emphasize the importance the community places on protection of human life, but results diverged from conventional practice in rating some biodiversity assets ahead of infrastructure. The preference for protecting a population of koalas ahead of action taken to prevent the extinction of an invertebrate and plant species corroborates previous research reporting biases in the way people value nature. If noncharismatic species are not to be treated as expendable, then the case for preventing their extinction needs to be better made to the community. Given the increasing global incidence of high-severity wildfires, further sampling of societal preferences among diverse asset types is needed to inform planning, policy, and practice relating to wildfire. Other preemptive targeted management actions (such as translocations) are needed to conserve biodiversity, especially noniconic species, likely to be imperiled by catastrophic events.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-12
Number of pages12
JournalConservation Biology
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 2023


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