The Best Places to Spot Sri Lanka’s Amazing Wildlife (7 minute read)

Sri Lanka is often much heralded as a wildlife destination, known for its large herds of Asian elephants, healthy density of leopards and other mysterious species, such as sloth bears, which inhabit its national parks. But despite this, the names of Sri Lanka’s national parks are not at all well-known. We’re sure you’ve heard about South Africa’s Kruger National Park, and Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park. But Udawalawe? Yala? Wilpattu? I didn’t think so! In this article, we’ll show you some of the best Sri Lanka national parks and tell you which species you can expect to spot on safari. Africa is all well and good, but there’s another wildlife paradise just waiting to be explored!

 

Udawalawe National Park

Located in the south of Sri Lanka, the 119 square miles of Udawalawe National Park represent some of the country’s premier wildlife spotting territory. Dominated by grassland plain, there are mountainous areas too, with two waterfalls also cascading through the park. It is estimated that around 400 wild elephants live in the park, making it one of the best places in Sri Lanka to spot these gentle giants. They can be seen lumbering slowly through the grassland in large herds, often accompanied by calves.

Other creatures to spot in the park include the elusive Sri Lankan leopard and the sloth bear, though this shy creature is rarely seen by visitors. More commonly spotted are the fishing cat, Sri Lankan sambar deer and wild boar. Monkey species including the toque macaque and tufted grey langur also reside in the reserve. More than 200 bird species have also been recorded in the park. This includes the endemic Sri Lankan junglefowl and the Sri Lanka grey hornbill. Bigger birds including painted storks and the impressive changeable hawk-eagle also call Udawalawe home.

A family of elephants in Udawalawe National Park
A herd of elephants cross the road in Udawalawe National Park, as traffic keeps a safe distance

Yala National Park

In Africa, leopards must compete with lions, cheetahs, painted dogs and more for food. In India and much of Asia, the tiger is the top predator in town. But in Sri Lanka, the leopard finally has a kingdom to itself. For this reason, the Sri Lankan leopard is the largest leopard sub-species in the world, a truly impressive animal. And Yala National Park is believed to have the highest concentration of wild leopards found anywhere in the world. These elusive predators are notoriously hard to spot on safari, but in Yala National Park you have a better chance than anywhere else of seeing this amazing creature for yourself.

Found on the country’s south-east coast, Yala is known for its mixture of habitats. From dense jungle to coastal sand dunes, the rich patchwork of habitats supports a wide array of life.  Other species you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for include around 300 elephants, sambar, crocodile, wild boar, and the sloth bear, which is easier to spot here than in many parts of Sri Lanka.

A Sri Lankan leopard in Yala National Park
A very handsome Sri Lankan leopard poses in Yala National Park

Bundala National Park

Bundala National Park is tiny, at just 24 square miles. Recognised as an internationally Important Bird Area, this mixture of habitats includes scrub, jungle, salt pans, wetlands, and sand dunes. It is also an important stopover for migratory species, meaning many unusual vagrants can be spotted in the park. If you’re looking for somewhere to spend a few hours of peaceful birdwatching, then Bundala is the Sri Lanka national park for you. Just remember that not all species can be seen all year round. So, if you are desperate to snap a photo of a specific species, then make sure you visit at the right time!

Avian species to spot if you remember your binoculars include the greater flamingo, black-headed ibis, Indian cormorant, and painted stork. Rarer species include the beautiful, black-necked stork and the great stone curlew. Aside from birds, a few Asian elephants occasionally wander through the park, and there is a healthy population of toque macaques and common langurs. Mugger and estuarine crocodiles can be seen sunning themselves on the banks of the wetland areas.

A Blue-tailed bee eater in Bundala National Park
A Blue-tailed bee eater in Bundala National park – credit: Lip Kee

Wilpattu National Park

One of Sri Lanka’s least visited national parks, Wilpattu translates to “natural lakes” and this north-western park is actually the largest in Sri Lanka, at more than 500 square miles. It is one of the “wildest” reserves in the country, home to intact ecosystems that have sadly been lost in other places. The most iconic Sri Lankan species can all be seen here, including elephant, leopard, and sloth bear. Sambar deer and water buffalo also live in good numbers and there are plenty of bird species taking advantage of the more than 50 lakes which give the park its name. Waterfowl species to be spotted in the park include the garganey duck, pintail, spoonbill, large white egret, and purple heron.

A sloth bear in Wilpattu, one of the best Sri Lanka national parks
An elusive sloth bear caught on camera in Wilpattu National Park

Horton Plains National Park

Rising to more than 2,000 metres above sea level, the landscape of Horton Plains is different to many of Sri Lanka’s national parks. It’s the highest plateau in the country, home to misty cloud forest and dense grasslands. Although there have been no elephants here since the 1940s, the large sambar deer does still inhabit the plains. This in turn has attracted its leopard predator. Horton Plains is also the only place in the world where the Horton Plains slender loris can be found. Three bird species are also found nowhere else in Sri Lanka, or the rest of the world. These are the dull-blue flycatcher, Sri Lanka white-eye, and Sri Lanka wood pigeon. The park is also renowned for its high number of amphibian and reptile species. This includes the endemic rhino-horned lizard, which, as the name suggests, has a horn protruding from its face.

Horton Plains National Park - Sri Lanka
the lush scenery of Horton Plains National Park

Mirissa

Mirissa is not a national park. It is a small town on Sri Lanka’s southern coast, which just so happens to be one of the best places in the world to enjoy a spot of whale watching. The months from May – October are prime time for spotting these giant mammals as they migrate. Blue whales, sperm whales, fin whales and orcas can all be seen breaching the waves to breathe before diving back down to feed. There are numerous local operators which run boat tours to marvel at these animals, as well as the dolphins, whale sharks and sea turtles which can also be seen out to sea.

Blue whale off the coast of Mirissa
A Blue Whale dives beneath the surface off the waves near Mirissa

Sri Lanka is the perfect wildlife holiday destination. It has wild national parks. It has iconic, flagship species including leopard and elephant. And it has a wide array of endemic species which can be found nowhere else on Earth. The only thing you need to decide, is which park is first on your list!


We have two dedicated wildlife group tours in Sri Lanka: Wild About Sri Lanka – 10 days and Safari in Sri Lanka – 9 days. But all of our group and Tailor-made Sri Lanka itineraries visit at least one of the country’s premier national parks.

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