Wildlife in Sri Lanka: The Best place for Safari trips outside of Africa – Make your holiday experience a memory of a lifetime

Wildlife in Sri Lanka

If there is a location where visitors can witness both the largest land animal and the largest marine animal in one trip, it is Sri Lanka. That is because the wildlife in Sri Lanka is so diverse.

This tiny tropical island, which is one of the top five hotspots for biodiversity, is home to an enormous diversity of animal species—five times as many as would normally be expected on a territory of its size.

While the Covid-19 regulations and economic issues limited human activities, unrestrained wildlife was and is still thriving like never before on this paradise island.

Sri Lanka harbors some of the finest parks in South Asia where you can go on a safari and witness incredible wildlife in their natural habitats.

According to Forbes, Sri Lanka is The Best Safari destination outside of Africa – Forbes 2019

Elephant gathering - Wildlife in Sri Lanka

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Not only you can see massive Elephant gatherings in Minneriya -The largest land animal, but also Sri Lanka is the best place to witness Blue Whales – the largest animal on earth.

Leopards, sloth bears, and sperm whales, exotic birds are some other amazing creatures you can witness when you visit Sri Lanka.

Due to the small size of the country, you don’t have to travel far to see these wild animals. 

Sri Lanka has an abundance of wildlife, so much so that you will frequently notice a wild creature even without visiting a national park. 

But if you know where and when to look, you can get the best wildlife experience.

For instance,

Mirissa and Trincomalee offer the best blue whale viewing in the world.

Kalpitiya is among the top 10 sites in the world for sperm whale watching.

In Mirissa both blue and sperm whales can be sighted.

And whereas Minneriya, Udawalawa, is renowned for elephant sightings, Yala is best for leopard sightings.

Yala national park - Best place to see Leopards

Sri Lankan Leopard - Wildlife in Sri Lanka
Photo by Udara Karunarathna on Unsplash

This is the most popular, and busiest National park in Sri Lanka. 

It was established on February 25, 1983, and is spread across the Uva and Southern provinces. The popularity of Yala National park is due to the fact that it has the highest concentration of leopards in the world. According to data, there is one cat per square kilometer in some areas of the park. 

But leopards are very solitary creatures, perhaps the most elusive cat in the world. So they tend to stay out of the spotlight making it a challenge to witness. So, witnessing a leopard on each safari can not be guaranteed. But the chance of spotting one is pretty high.

Leopards can usually be seen lounging around in the treetops or quenching their thirst on the edge of a small lagoon.

They rule the forest here since there are no threats from bigger carnivores like lions and tigers as there are in Africa or India.

Because there’s less competition for food and fewer threats to the life of leopards in Sri Lanka it has allowed them to grow bigger in size.  

Wilpaththu National park-Sri Lanka
Photo by Fergus So on Unsplash

Every year during the dry season, from February to July, vegetation is thinner in Yala, making it easier to spot leopards. So, that’s the best time to go on a safari.

Not only leopards but other animals like sambar and spotted deer, wild boar, crocodile, langue and toque monkey, golden jackal, water buffaloes, sloth bears, peacocks, and jungle fowls can be seen too.

During June and July, when Palu trees are full of fruits, sloth bears can be spotted more.

A mixture of habitats; from open parkland to dense jungle, myriad of flooded lagoons, high coastal dunes, and a perfect combination of freshwater, marine, scrub, and woodland areas for the diversity of birds makes Yala an ideal habitat for a total of 44 mammal species and 200 species of birds.

Being the most popular National park comes with some downsides to it. It’s quite busy, you’ll have to wait in line early to gain entry. Not to mention the reckless driving which quite disturbs the animals. The authorities have taken action to reduce the disturbance caused by the vehicles. But their effectiveness is still in question.

Safaris can be booked with a guide which is the best way to get the full experience out of this.

Drivers of the safari jeeps make their sole mission to show you a leopard.  

They know the usual tracks of animals and where they are usually seen. So they’ll take you through these roads. If one driver witnesses a leopard, he’ll inform the other drivers and everyone will gather at the place where the cat is seen within minutes. 

The journey through the dirt off-road route is bumpy. So hold on to the safety bars for your dear lives. It’s quite the experience though. Not gonna lie. 

Kumana National Park - For Bird watching

Birdwatching Sri Lanka - Wildlife in Sri Lanka

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Compared to touristy Yala, Kumana is a considerably smaller, quieter national park.

It is most popular for its 200-acre bird sanctuary that sits on a rich mangrove swamp.

Located on the southeast coast, consisting of wetlands, dry tropical forests, about 20 lagoons, and tanks, Kumana makes a great place for birdwatching and safari trips.

Although the density of animals is less than in Yala, here you will be able to spot elephants, crocodiles, wild buffaloes, turtles, and many bird species including black-necked storks and other endemic rare birds.

Watchtowers allow the visitors to gain a spectacular view and lookout point for birdwatching.

Numerous bears and leopards reside in this area, although sightings are somewhat rare.

Bundala national park - For Birdwatching

Birdwatching in Sri Lanka

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Bundala is a wetland park that is also situated close to Yala.

It stretches 20 km along the coast to the west of Yala enclosing shallow lagoons, scrub jungles, salt pans, dunes, and wetlands with a rich diversity of wildlife.

The coastal strip of Bundala provides habitat to all five species of turtle who lay eggs on the sandy beach.

The lagoons, waterways, and scrub forest shelter almost 200 bird species. 

The park is best known for its incredible spectacles of migratory birds.

One of the park’s most well-known visitors is the pink greater flamingo, which migrates from North India and makes for an amazing sight when it gathers in the lagoons of Bundala National Park.

Other aquatic birds including pelican, ibis, painted stork, and spoonbill can be spotted too.

Colorful peacocks are widely spread throughout the park and can be spotted frequently.

Crocodiles, wild boars, and grey langur monkeys are just a few of the numerous animals that can be spotted in Bundala.

This park offers a more authentic animal experience because it receives fewer visitors.

Udawalawe National park - To see elephant herds up close

Udawalawe National park is situated inland just south of the central mountains. 

This National park is less vegetated with open plains surrounding the Udawalawe reservoir.

The main attraction is the year-round ability to spot wild elephants frequently. 

Almost guaranteed to see one during a safari. Elephants can be seen up close. 

Some of the wildlife that can be spotted here other than elephants are jackals, crocodiles, water buffaloes, mugger crocodiles, sambar, spotted and barking deer, wild boar, and endemic toque macaque.

Many endemic and migratory birds can be seen in Udawalawe national park too.

The best time for birdwatching will be from November to March.

Elephants - Sri Lanka

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Elephant transit home in Udawalawe National park

If you plan to go on a safari in Udawalawe national park it’s a good option to add a visit to Elephant transit home to your itinerary. It’s about an hour’s drive away from the park.

Supported by the Born Free Foundation, the home cares for and rehabilitates orphaned elephants to prepare them to release back into the wild.

The best time to visit this place is the feedings (9 am, 12 noon, 3 pm, 6 pm). You’ll get the chance to feed a baby elephant with your own hands. How cool is that? Moreover, seeing the young elephants play is a joy to witness, and you can never grow bored of their shenanigans.

Sinharaja Biosphere - For a hike through the untouched tropical rainforest

Sinharaja Forest Wildlife Sri Lanka

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Sinharaja is a tropical rainforest that spreads through Sabaragamuwa and Southern provinces in Sri Lanka. 

It is the last surviving area of the primary tropical rainforest on this island and has also been named a UNESCO world heritage site.

This reserve is a biological hotspot that accommodates more than 50% of Sri Lanka’s endemic species. 

Due to thick vegetation with a forest canopy that towers up to 45m large animals are not found in this ecosystem.

Animals like butterflies, insects, amphibians, and reptiles can be found often.

Also, mammals such as rare leopards, purple-faced langurs, and rusty-spotted cats can be spotted.

Sinharaja is best for birdwatching too.

In this biological reserve, 70% of the island’s bird species as well as endemic birds such as green-billed coucal, blue magpie, and the red-faced malkoha can be spotted.

Sinharaja forest is perfect for a hike. The best experience can be taken when a hike is taken with a guide.

You will have the feeling of strolling through the jungle in the film “Jumanji, welcome to the jungle” thanks to trails that wind through emerald ferns, bubbling ponds, tumbling waterfalls, and dense, foggy vegetation.

Minneriya National Park - Alternative to the southern parks: Where Elephants rule

Elephants bathing in Minneriya tank Sri Lanka

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Minneriya National park is situated in the North Central province,  Polonnaruwa.

It is situated close to the cultural triangle. 

You can hop in a safari jeep in the afternoon when the elephants come out of the shade, after climbing Sigiriya in the morning.

Minneriya tank is situated inside the park. It is part of Sri Lanka’s Elephant corridor.

Elephants travel to the Minneriya tank from July to August, when the water level is lowest. There’s fresh grass on the plains of the tank where there is no water. Elephants love to feed on this grass. And right next to the grass, there is water from the tank for them to drink. So this is a perfect gathering place for them.

About 300 elephants get together in the Minneriya and adjoining Kavudulla from July to September/October making it a spectacle to witness. This is called “The Gathering”, the largest assembly of Asian elephants in the world. It’s truly a marvelous sight to behold.

“The Gathering” has been listed by Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 wildlife spectacles in the world.

Elephants can be spotted during the rest of the year in Minneriya but in much smaller numbers.

In addition to elephants, deer, purple-faced langur, macaque monkeys, sloth bears, about 20 leopards, a wide range of migratory and endemic birds including hanging-parrot, brown-capped babblers, and green bee-eater and much more live in Minneriya National Park.

Horton plains National park - Wildlife in the Hill region - Little England

Horton plains Sri Lanka

Situated on the highest plateau of the island 2100m above sea level, Horton plains is nicknamed the “Roof of the island”.

With its pristine cloud forests and lush montane grasslands, with dramatically plunging cliffs that instantly get covered by mist from time to time combined with the cool climate, Horton plains feel a world apart from the rest of Sri Lanka.

The climate in this area reminded the British who ruled Sri Lanka during colonial times of the climate in England. So they called this part of the island “Little England”.

Horton plains Sambar deer Sri Lanka
Photo by Roshan Maddumage on Unsplash

The sweeping plains of Horton National park are rich in endemic plants and animals that are adapted to this cool climate.

Sambar deers skirt through the long grasses and move in large herds. The males have antlers but the females do not. 

Some have got used to eating food given by visitors so they can be seen on the side of the roads waiting to get some food from a tour vehicle. But it is best not to feed wild animals.

There have been elephants in Horton plains in the past. But they disappeared in the 1940s due to excessive hunting.

Today a wide variety of mammals, a massive range of migratory and endemic birds, amphibians, and reptiles can be seen here. 

Giant squirrels, wild boars, rusty spotted cats, and purple-faced langurs are some of the 24 species of mammals that can be spotted in Horton plains.

The Horton plains slender loris is one of the world’s most endangered primates and can be found in the Highlands. 

Rare lizards like Rhino – horned lizards reside in the cloud forests and can be seen if you look vigilantly.

The best time to visit is the early mornings before the cloud cover settles over the plains.

It’s possible to go on a hike with a guide.

Horton plains are perfect for a picnic too.

Gal Oya National park - For an authentic and memorable experience of wildlife in Sri Lanka - Or Maybe to go on a boat safari

Elephants Sri Lanka - Visit Sri Lanka - safe to travel to Sri Lanka

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Gal Oya is a National park established in 1954 which is relatively untouched and little visited which makes it a perfect place to enjoy the wildlife and have an authentic and memorable experience without any rush.

This national park is situated surrounding the Senanayaka Samudraya which is the second largest man-made reservoir in Sri Lanka.

Gal Oya is one of the best places in the world to see Asian elephants in their natural habitats.

It is very fascinating to witness this majestic animal swimming across Senanayake Samudraya from one island to the other.

There are over 150 species of birds living in this national park, especially on the bird’s island situated in the middle of the reservoir. You have the chance to go on a boat safari to explore these islands situated in the reservoir.

Apart from that, 32 mammal species including wild boars, deer, leopards, sloth bears, and also mugger crocodiles can be spotted in this National park.

Mirissa - Dolphin and whale watching - Marine Wildlife in Sri Lanka

Whale watching
Photo by Davide Dalfovo on Unsplash

Mirissa, which is the number one hotspot for whale watching in the country, is a small beach town on Sri Lanka’s south coast.

The sight of whales breaching in the crashing waves is an experience of a lifetime. 

It’s likely to see blue whales in Mirissa.

Whale watching is best from November to April here.

May to October is the prime whale-watching season.

If you’re lucky, you might encounter bottlenose, common, and spinner dolphins, among several others.

It’s also possible to go whale watching in Trincomalee from June to October.

Kalpitiya is famous for sperm whale watching which is the largest toothed whale and largest toothed predator. 

Wilpattu - Feel the true essence of wilderness

Sri Lankan leopard Wilpattu National Park - Anuradhapura
Photo by Geoff Brooks on Unsplash

Wilpattu is the largest National park in Sri Lanka which is situated in the dry lowlands of the northwest part of the island.

Wilpattu means 10 lakes. The park has wetlands known as villus which are perfect habitats for many bird species.

This park doesn’t get a lot of visitors. Therefore, one can feel the true essence of the wilderness here.

Animal sightings are less frequent than in other parks like Yala because the park is so large and the animals are not accustomed to guests.

Nevertheless, regal leopards, crocodiles, deers, peacocks, monitor lizards, tortoises, birds like flycatchers, and jungle fowl can be spotted in Wilpattu National park.

Hikkaduwa marine national park - The best snorkeling and diving experience

Turtles-Hikkaduwa-Sri Lanka-Marine wildlife

Hikkaduwa is one of the 3 marine national parks in Sri Lanka which is located in the Southern province.

The island’s most accessible and diverse coral reef is on Hikkaduwa, where visitors may enjoy the best snorkeling and diving experience in the country.

The main reef sits in a sheltered lagoon.

Around 60 different species of the boulder and encrusting corals, small-strand corals like Acropora, and cabbage-like Montipora corals make up the vibrant and diverse world of coral in Hikkaduwa.

Sea turtles reside on seagrass, and tropical reef fish like parrotfish, angelfish, and butterflyfish weave through the corals.

Blacktip reef sharks can be encountered alongside hawksbill and green turtles on the outer slope of the reef.

The purpose of this post is to provide you with an overview of the variety of wildlife experiences you can have in Sri Lanka. I hope my mission was a success.

There are some cool national parks that I couldn’t include in this post. I hope to include them in my future articles. If you have any questions or any thoughts about this article let me know in the comments below. 

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Until next time….

නැවත හමුවෙමු😉 (Newatha hamuwemu = Let’s meet again)

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