A Guide to the Wildlife of Sri Lanka

Leopard - Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Despite being small in size and defying the general trend that islands don’t have many animals, Sri Lanka packs a powerful punch when it comes to wildlife. It is one of the top five hotspots for biodiversity in the world and also boasts one of the highest rates of biological endemism. With this in mind, it is simply unfathomable to go to Sri Lanka and not make the most of the range of exotic creatures that dwell within the country’s stunning national parks. Here is our guide on when and where to spot some Sri Lanka’s most exciting animals.

Must Visit National Parks in Sri Lanka

Yala National Park landscape - Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Yala National Park

The most famous national park in Sri Lanka, Yala is home to 215 bird species and 44 mammal species. Expect to see roaming elephants, herds of sambar deer, crocodiles and buffalo. What’s more, the park has the highest concentration of leopards in the world.

Recommended Accommodation:
Wild Coast Tented Lodge: A tented lodge combining luxury hotel comforts with a safari-style wilderness experience.

Udawalawe National Park landscape - Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Udawalawe National Park

Framed by the soaring Central Highlands, Udawalawe is one of the best places in the world to see wild elephants. Herds are often seen roaming in numbers of up to 100, with other mammals in the park including water buffalo, wild boar, sloth bears, spotted deer and the endemic toque macaque.

Recommended Accommodation:
Pokuna Safari Eco Lodge: A secluded ecolodge that provides a first-hand experience of rural life in Sri Lanka.

Minneriya reservoir landscape - Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Minneriya National Park

As part of Sri Lanka’s elephant corridor, large numbers of elephants migrate across the country to Minneriya every year. Known as ‘The Gathering’, as many as 300 come to the park’s reservoir in the largest meeting of Asian elephants anywhere in the world.

Recommended Accommodation:
Levona Garden Resort: Boasts a tranquil setting and delicious, home-cooked Sri Lankan meals.

Wilpattu National Park landscape - Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Wilpattu National Park

Translating to ‘natural lakes’ in Sinhala, Wilpattu’s most prominent feature is its wetlands. Known as ‘Villu’, the park has over 50 lakes surrounded by grassy plains. Despite being Sri Lanka’s largest national park, visitor numbers remain low and give the park a true sense of wilderness.

Recommended Accommodation:
Mahoora Tented Safari Camp: A luxurious campsite featuring carpeted tents with private bathrooms and hot showers.

Horton Plains - Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Horton Plains National Park

Set over 2,000 metres above sea level, the Horton Plains feel a world apart from the rest of Sri Lanka. Large areas of the park are covered in pristine cloud forest, with dramatically plunging cliffs at its southern boundary. Home to a variety of endemic species, it’s one of the best places for bird watching.

Recommended Accommodation:
Hill Safari Eco Lodge: Situated in a private tea plantation with panoramic views of the surrounding mountains.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve - Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Sinharaja Forest Reserve

World Heritage-listed Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a biodiversity hotspot. Containing Sri Lanka’s last area of primary tropical rainforest, it’s home to over 50% of the country’s endemic species of mammals and butterflies, as well as many types of reptile, insect and rare amphibians.

Recommended Accommodation:
Boulder Garden Hotel: A unique hotel built around extraordinary giant boulders and caves.

Bundala National Park - Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Bundala National Park

One of Sri Lanka’s best destinations for bird watching, Bundala protects an important area of coastal wetland. Almost 200 bird species have been recorded here, including ibis, pelicans and huge flocks of greater flamingos. Visitors can also spot crocodiles, elephants, turtles and a variety of other fauna.

Recommended Accommodation:
Turtle Bay: A boutique hotel located on the quiet sands of Kalamatiya with views of the Indian Ocean.

Gal Oya National Park - Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Gal Oya National Park

The only national park in Sri Lanka where you can take a boat safari, Gal Oya protects the vast Senanayake Samudra Reservoir. The park is home to 32 mammal species, with a visitor highlight being the sight of herds of elephants swimming across the reservoir from one island to another.

Recommended Accommodation:
Gal Oya Lodge: A unique ecolodge spread across 20 acres of private jungle.

Wildlife to See in Sri Lanka

Elephants at Udawalawe

Elephant

The Asian elephant is the number one animal that people on holiday in Sri Lanka hope to spot. While there are a number of elephant orphanages that allow you to get up close and personal with the animals by riding and feeding them, seeing elephants in the wild is a much better experience and one that you can do without worrying whether they are being mistreated or not.

Best places to see elephants in Sri Lanka

For the largest herds and best sightings, head to either Udawalawe or Minneriya National Park.

Best time to see elephants in Sri Lanka

Whereas Udawalawe guarantees elephant sightings year-round, the famous elephant gathering in Minneriya occurs during the months of August to September.

Leopard in Yala National Park - Sri Lanka Tours - On The Go Tours

Leopard

Perhaps the most elusive cat in the world, the leopard reigns supreme on the little island of Sri Lanka. With no lions or tigers to threaten its position, leopards in Sri Lanka are more casual than they are elsewhere in the world and can often be seen lounging around in the treetops.

Best places to see leopards in Sri Lanka

If leopards are what you are after then head to Yala National park, the area with the highest leopard density.

Best time to see leopards in Sri Lanka

Visit Yala in the dry season from May to October, when vegetation is less thick, and it’ll be much easier to spot this beautiful big cat.

Leatherback turtle - Wildlife in Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Turtle

There are five different types of turtle in Sri Lanka: Leatherback, Olive Ridley, Loggerhead, Hawksbill and Green. Of these, the Green turtle is most commonly found while the leatherbacks are among the rarest. The sea turtles have come up against many obstacles that have challenged their very existence but are thriving nonetheless with the help of a number of conservation projects.

Best places to see turtles in Sri Lanka

To see some of these majestic creatures in the flesh, make your way to Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project or Turtle Watch Rekawa.

Best time to see turtles in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka’s main laying season is from October to April, when you can spot adult turtles shuffling across the island’s sandy shores. Baby turtles can then be sighted in the hatching season, running one month later from November to May.

Sloth bear - Wildlife of Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Sloth Bear

The adorable-looking sloth bear is hard to spot but well worth the effort if you manage to catch sight of one. Lankier in build and somewhat shaggier in coat than its relatives (brown and black bears), these creatures might seem clumsy and oafish but they are excellent climbers and gentle with their cubs.

Best places to see sloth bears in Sri Lanka

Sloth bears breed throughout the year in Sri Lanka and can often be sighted amongst the fruit trees of Yala National Park. There is also a large population of them in the Wilpattu National Park.

Best time to see sloth bears in Sri Lanka

Time your visit in June or July, when Yala’s fruit trees are in full bloom and the sloth bears come out to feed.

Sambar deer - Wildlife of Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Sambar

The sambar is a type of deer found in various countries across Asia and can be recognised by its particularly shaggy coat and long, rugged antlers. The Sri Lankan subspecies of the sambar is among the largest in the world. Sambars usually shed their antlers every year and in many countries these antlers are then transformed into a variety of objects, including knife handles.

Best places to see sambar in Sri Lanka

They can often be found roaming through the Horton Plains as well as Yala National Park.

Best time to see sambar in Sri Lanka

Generally seen year-round, Sambar are particularly easy to spot during the dry season as they search for water sources.

Red Slender Loris - Wildlife in Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Red Slender Loris

It is hard not to fall in love with the big eyes and tiny hands of the heart-wrenchingly cute red slender loris but you’ll have to find one first. This little primate is on the brink of extinction, making it ever harder to spot in the wild, especially given the fact that it is nocturnal.

Best places to see red slender loris in Sri Lanka

If you're hoping to see these enchanting animals, then your best bet is to head to the famous Yala National Park.

Best time to see red slender loris in Sri Lanka

As there is no particular season that’s best for sightings, you’ll need to keep your eyes well and truly peeled on a night safari to see these nocturnal primates.

Blue whale - Wildlife in Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Blue Whale

The king of the ocean and the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale is a rare delight for wildlife enthusiasts and nowhere in the world are they more reliably spotted than in Sri Lanka. Nothing is quite like the shock of seeing the sheer size of these magnificent beasts in the flesh so be sure to plan your trip around whale watching season.

Best places to see blue whales in Sri Lanka

You can spot blue whales off Sri Lanka’s northeast coast near Trincomalee or in the southern waters by Mirissa.

Best time to see blue whales in Sri Lanka

Between the months of June and October whale watching is best off Trincomalee, then from November to April the season continues on the south coast in Mirissa.

Ceylon Hanging Parrot - Wildlife in Sri Lanka - On The Go Tours

Birds

Looking towards the sky, travellers will be delighted by the number of endemic birds that can be found in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has its very own, unique species of magpies, owls, hornbills, pigeons and parrots and plenty of places to spot them all.

Best places for bird watching in Sri Lanka

All of the national parks in the country will have a selection of birds on offer but those considered to be the best for bird-watching are Sinharaja, Bundala, Yala and Udawalawe national parks and the Horton Plains.

Best time for bird watching in Sri Lanka

Keen birders should head to Sri Lanka between November and April, when there’s plenty of migrant species to look out for but less rainfall.

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