In the wetter north and east of the Kalahari, open woodlands exist. These are made up mainly of a type of acacia known as the camelthorn tree. Endemic to the Kalahari, the camelthorn is a crucial part of the desert ecosystem, manufacturing nutrients that encourage other plants to grow around its base and providing shade for animals. Amazingly enough, a variety of animals have adapted to the extremely dry conditions including meerkats, brown hyenas, the Kalahari lion, giraffes, common warthogs, jackals, chacma baboons, and several species of antelope (including the eland, gemsbok, springbok, hartebeest, steenbok, kudu, and duiker), and many species of birds and reptiles. Numerous other birds and mammals utilize the desert, but most are migratory, venturing into the Kalahari only when adequate water is present.

The Kalahari is also well known as the home of the San people, a diverse collection of nomadic hunter-gatherers who have lived in this desert for more than 20,000 years and are believed to be the oldest continuous residents of southern Africa. Today, few San survive exclusively by hunting and foraging; many have adopted sedentary lifestyles in towns. However, about 100,000 members of this ethnic group still live along the fringes of the Kalahari.