Lesson Plans

Reading and Writing About Endangered Species [Grades 1-12]

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.


May 18 is Endangered Species Day, a time to learn about the threats animals face all over the world, what we can do to support conservation efforts, and why we should care. Below, you will find reading, writing, and discussion activites using global news to introduce this subject to students at three levels: elementary, middle, and high school. Get your class excited to learn more about endangered species with this video by journalist Sean Gallagher for National Geographic:

5-10 Minute Read: "Young Collectors, Traders Help Fuel a Boom in Ultra-Exotic Pets"

By Rachael Bale

Huang Jia Chen started off with lizards and turtles in junior high. Then in high school he got his first snake.

“First it was just a hobby,” he says. “Then I started to keep more and more. When there were lots, I started to breed them.”

It wasn’t long before he was selling them. Now he has an entire room in his Beijing apartment filled from floor to ceiling with glass terrariums holding snakes. “Reptiles are very fashionable as pets,” he says.

From venomous snakes, ultra-rare tortoises, and baby saltwater crocs that will eventually grow to 15 feet long to monkeys, raptors, and even sharks, exotic pets are popular in China, especially among those in their 20s and 30s.

“It’s more than just a fad here in China,” says Sean Gallagher, a Beijing-based filmmaker who produced a short documentary on the phenomenon for National Geographic (see above). Young people want something new and different. “They want to stand out and show off to their friends,” he says.

The boom in exotic pet ownership has conservationists and animal advocates scrambling to deliver an important message: These wild animals belong in the wild. Keeping them in homes compromises their well-being and could be bad for their owners too. Exotic pets can spread salmonella, herpes, tuberculosis, SARS, bird flu, and more.

And conservationists worry about what exotic pet ownership means for animals in the wild. Some exotic pets, such as the reptiles Chen sells, are bred in captivity. But for some wild-caught animals, the pet trade poses a clear threat to their continued existence. In 2013, for example, Thai authorities arrested a man trying to smuggle 54 ploughshare tortoises from Madagascar—an estimated 10 percent of all ploughshare tortoises remaining in the wild.

“The problem with exotic pets is that approximately half of the trade—worth tens of billions of dollars per year—is illegal,” says Tom Moorhouse, a zoologist at Oxford University who studies the exotic pet trade. “There is very little way that consumers can know whether the pet they are buying has been captured from the wild, then transported around the world, typically in hideous conditions.”

International law says that certain wild-caught, critically endangered species can only be exported from their home countries and imported to another country for non-commercial purposes, like scientific research. So how are these critically endangered animals winding up as pets?

China has some laws protecting certain species from becoming exotic pets, but traders seem to have no problem circumventing them.

“The online and social media sales of all kinds of wildlife animal species have long been a 'safe haven' of illicit activities that the Chinese law enforcement is yet to take actions,” says Peter Li, a professor at University of Houston-Downtown and China policy specialist at Humane Society International. 

While Asia dominates the international trade in live animals, according to a 2013 Oxford University study in BioScience, global demand for exotic pets is growing. In the Persian Gulf, big cats have become the latest must-have accessory for the super-rich. In the U.S., it’s believed there are more wild animals in homes and roadside attractions than in zoos. And Europeans are importing reptiles in greater quantities than anyone else, according to the BioScience study, though they outlawed the imports of wild-caught birds in 2005.

The scale of the exotic pet trade, both in China and globally, is difficult to estimate. International reporting of legal imports and exports of live animals is seriously flawed, and Interpol estimates only about 10 percent of illegal trade is ever detected. Still, conservative estimates place the figure of live, wild-caught animals traded across borders as in the millions.

“I don’t think people understand the severity,” Gallagher says. “Even if only one in 100 have an exotic pet, that’s still a very large number of animals.”

Moorhouse cautions anyone considering buying an exotic pet. “Consumers risk buying a pet that is illegal to own, that may be carrying a contagious disease from across the globe that their family has no immunity to, or which may simply die quickly in its new home,” he says. “Really not worth it!”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Who/what can be negatively impacted by exotic pet ownership?
  2. What are some of those consequences?
  3. How is the exotic pet situation in China connected to your country?

Writing Activity:

Elementary school students:

Write a 1-2 page opinion essay that answers the following question: Should people be legally allowed to keep exotic animals as pets? Why or why not? Include at least 3 sources, one of which can be "Young Collectors, Traders Help Fuel a Boom in Ultra-Exotic Pets."

Middle school students:

Choose one of the following animals, featured in Sean Gallagher's video, that you'd like to find out more about:

Fennec fox

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.

Blacktip reef shark

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.

Eclectus parrot

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.

Cranwell's horned frog

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.

Rhesus macaque

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.

Image by Sean Gallagher. China, 2017.

Do some research on the animal you chose and answer the following questions in 1-2 pages, citing your sources:

  1. Where does this animal live, and what is its natural habitat like?
  2. What threats is this animal facing right now?
  3. What would happen to the environment if this animal disappeared? What other animals would be affected?

After writing your answers, write a social media post for the social media platform of your choice (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.) to convince people not to keep this animal as a pet. Use facts! Share this post with the class. If you are on social media, post it from your account.

High school students:

Sean Gallagher and Rachael Bale note that much of the exotic animal trade is illegal, yet people continue buying and selling these animals as pets. What can be done to stop this practice?

Write a 2-3 page essay proposing one or more solutions to this problem.

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