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Coolest Up-Close Animal Encounters in Their Climates

By Joe Yogerst
May 6, 2014; 5:18 AM ET
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Leaving our vehicles behind, we strike out on foot across the red rock desert of western Namibia. Our guide motions to us to be absolutely silent as we follow animal tracks up and over a stony ridge. All of a sudden, our prize appears: a large male rhino, who looks our way but doesn't seem to be bothered. We continue to creep up, far enough that we won't anger him, but close enough to get some great photos.

The Kunene region of Namibia is one of the world's best places to get up close and personal with rhinos, and one of the only spots in Africa you can do so on foot. Similar places are scattered all around the globe, offering thrilling chances to observe and photograph iconic species in the wild.

Imagine waking up at a mobile lodge perched on Canada's northern tundra and pulling back the curtains to see a polar bear staring you straight in the face. Or confronting an eight-foot Komodo dragon-smelling you with a flick of its tongue as he determines whether you're his next meal-on a narrow trail through an Indonesian forest.

From snorkeling with marine iguanas in the Galápagos to tracking gorillas in the mists of Uganda, read on to discover the coolest places on the planet for close-up encounters with 20 different amazing animals.

Henry H. Holdsworth Photography / Natural Habitat Adventures

Polar Bears

Where: Churchill, Canada

How: By Tundra Buggy

When: October-November

Each fall scores of polar bears migrate from their summer digs in the boreal forest of northern Manitoba onto the frozen (and seal-rich) Hudson Bay. Smack-dab in the middle of their route is Churchill, which boasts a polar bear patrol and "prison" for bears who decide to linger in town. Natural Habitat Adventures maintains a remote tundra lodge rolled into the heart of bear country for up-close encounters.

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Jaguars

Where: Pantanal, Brazil

How: By boat

When: June-November

The tropical wetlands of southern Brazil hide one of the world's largest jaguar populations. These are also the largest jags: mature males can weigh as much as 350 pounds. During the dry season they are often spotted hunting along waterways or sunning themselves on sandy beaches. SouthWild offers viewing safaris with both land-based and riverboat accommodation.

winfried wisniewski/Corbis

Elephants

Where: Chobe National Park, Botswana

How: By airplane or vehicle

When: April-October

The vast floodplain of the Chobe River in northern Botswana is a smorgasbord for grazing elephants, with upward of 70,000 concentrated in the park. The wide-open spaces also make this perfect terrain for viewing and photographing the roaming pachyderms. African Profile Safaris can organize a customized flying safari that offers a rare opportunity to observe the giant creatures from both air and ground.

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