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Mattias Klum/National Geographic Stock
Skip the line at the zoo and get up close and personal with five amazing animals.

For me, it happened rather unexpectedly several years ago. I was dozing on the patio outside my guest room near a wildlife reserve in Ghana when a family of baboons traipsed by, about 12 feet away — nothing between us but some dead grass and a cup of lukewarm coffee. I sat there frozen, all but ignored, save for an adolescent who had the courtesy to sneer at me and defecate before continuing on his merry way.

To this day, I have a soft spot for baboons. They reminded me that afternoon about something important when it comes to wild animals: They actually share the planet with us. Yeah, it’s obvious enough, but it’s all too easy to forget while you’re sitting on the freeway during rush hour or calling an exterminator about squirrels in the attic or even while staring through bars at the zoo.

What follows are five close encounters with five amazing creatures, great and small, that will imprint on more than just your zoom lens. Most of them are threatened. Some may not be around in the near-enough future. And all of them serve as a great, crucial reminder that, as easy as it is to forget, we’re all in this together.

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Kuruman River Reserve, South Africa
Mattias Klum/National Geographic Stock
Meet the Meerkats of the Kalahari

Meerkats — those burrowing, foraging, remarkably community-oriented members of the mongoose family — may not rank among elephants, lions and giraffes on the list of biggest animal tourism attractions in Africa. But you already know about those obvious African safari A-listers, so why not ditch them for a far less typical animal experience deep in South Africa’s Kalahari Desert, which is home to several indigenous meerkat colonies and a long-term field study you may have glimpsed from afar on Animal Planet in recent years. Remember Meerkat Manor? Welcome to the neighborhood.

For privileged guests of the Kalahari Meerkat Project on the Kuruman River Reserve, these diminutive desert dwellers quickly steal the show (as well as the odd Emmy nomination) — and occasionally climb onto your head for a better view of their surroundings. Try getting a rhino to do that.

“Aside from seeing meerkats in zoos and on television, we didn’t know much about them,” notes Gail Dengel, who, with her husband, Russell, recently took part in a two-week stint on the Kalahari Meerkat Project through Earthwatch Institute, an international nonprofit organization that teams up volunteers with scientific research programs around the world. “But observing them in the wild, walking among them as they went about their business, was a total immersion experience.”

Guests of the meerkat study, which is open to the public through Earthwatch between April and September, live on the reserve for two weeks. They work directly with researchers, learning how to observe meerkats without being disruptive, studying their humanlike social structures and funneling new data into an ongoing 10-year study. Is experience necessary? No. Is your involvement meaningful? Yes. Is it up close and personal? At times, very.

“Because of the meerkats’ habituation to humans, we were able to observe them at much closer range and in greater depth than I had expected,” notes Russell Dengel, who at one point had a meerkat perched on his head, scouting the area for predators. “For two weeks, you really become part of their native ecosystem.”

Earthwatch public-program manager Kate Quinn emphasizes that this is not a safari experience: “People love being involved at a higher, far more hands-on level and engaging in a way that truly makes a difference.” Plus, Quinn adds, “the meerkats really are amazing — and not particularly shy.” www.earthwatch.org