1. Discuss students’ opinions of zoos.
Ask students to share how they feel about zoos. Ask: Do you think zoos serve important purposes? Are you opposed to zoos? Have students explain their answers. Students’ opinions may vary widely. Keep the discussion short and tell students you will revisit this question at the end of the activity.

2. Activate students’ prior knowledge about endangered and threatened species.
Ask students what endangered or threatened species they know of. Ask: Why is this species in trouble? How can we protect it? Then have students look up tigers, pandas, and great apes on the World Wildlife website to find out the human-induced causes of these particular mammal species becoming endangered, threatened, or extinct. They should find the following information:

  • Tigers: poisoned, trapped, snared, shot, and captured by humans
  • Pandas: suffering habitat loss due to roads and railroads
  • Great Apes: suffering habitat loss due to agriculture, mining, and logging; killed for bushmeat trade

Point out to students that for some critically endangered species, such as Siberian (or Amur) tigers, there are more members in captivity than in the wild—mainly in zoos. Emphasize to students that mammals are not the only threatened or endangered species. If time allows, have students also research examples of endangered bird species, such as the Spix's macaw, or reptile or amphibian species.

3. Introduce the topic of captive breeding.
Explain to students that many zoos, aquariums, and other institutions are involved in captive-breeding programs that try to breed endangered or threatened animals with the following purposes:

  • to create a sizable, stable, and healthy population in order to avoid extinction
  • to reintroduce species back into their natural habitats, when conditions allow

Invite students to share what they know, if anything, about these programs. Tell students that captive breeding has saved some species from extinction, including black-footed ferrets and California condors.

4. Revisit students’ opinions of zoos.
Revisit Step 1 of the activity. Ask students to share how they feel about zoos. Ask: How has your opinion about the value of zoos changed, if at all? Why?

Extending the Learning

Have small groups look up more endangered species on the World Wildlife website to find information on human-induced causes of animals becoming threatened or endangered. Ask them to report back to the class.


Subjects & Disciplines

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • explain the human-induced causes of species becoming endangered or threatened, leading to extinction
  • define vocabulary term

Teaching Approach

  • Learning-for-use

Teaching Methods

  • Discussions

National Standards, Principles, and Practices

National Geography Standards

Standard 14
How human actions modify the physical environment

National Science Education Standards

(9-12) Standard C-4
Interdependence of organisms


What You’ll Need

Materials You Provide

  • Paper
  • Pencils
  • Pens

Background & Vocabulary

Background Information

Captive-breeding programs breed endangered species in zoos and other facilities to build a healthy population of the animals. By becoming familiar with the issues surrounding these programs, you can make judgments about whether or not they save species from extinction.

Prior Knowledge

  • None


Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

captive breeding


reproduction of rare species controlled by humans in a closed environment, such as a zoo.

endangered species


organism threatened with extinction.

Encyclopedic Entry: endangered species

extinct species


organism that is no longer a part of an ecosystem.

genetic diversity


difference or variety of units of inheritance (genes) in a species.

habitat loss


the reduction or destruction of an ecosystem, making it less able to support its native species.

threatened species


organism that may soon become endangered.


Media Credits

The audio, illustrations, photos, and videos are credited beneath the media asset, except for promotional images, which generally link to another page that contains the media credit. The Rights Holder for media is the person or group credited.


Rhonda Lucas Donald


Christina Riska, National Geographic Society

Expert Reviewer

Mark Riegner, Professor of Environmental Studies, Prescott College


adapted from National Geographic Xpeditions lesson “Can Captive Breeding Save Species?”

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