Sri Lanka wildlife safari to observe elephants, leopards, and a variety of birds

While some of Sri Lanka’s parks, like Yala National Park, Minneriya, and Kaudulla, are popular for Sri Lanka wildlife safari and get a steady stream of visitors, others see only a trickle of tourists; they all have secrets to offer. Most places allow you to combine Sri Lanka safari tours with visits to historic sites like sacred temples, forgotten stupas, and unexcavated ruins. But meeting one of Sri Lanka’s famous elephants in person is by far the highlight of any trip there. There are about 7,500 of them dispersed over the 22 national parks.

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Sri Lanka wildlife safari

A leopard taking a nap in a tree’s fork. A herd of elephants emerges from the jungle foliage. In the dawn light, a lone jackal surveys the vast plain beyond. The national parks of Sri Lanka are home to some of the world’s most breathtaking scenery and wild animals.

While some of Sri Lanka’s parks, like Yala, Minneriya, and Kaudulla, get a steady stream of visitors, others see only a trickle, they all have secrets to offer. Most places allow you to combine wildlife safaris with visits to historic sites like sacred temples, forgotten stupas, and unexcavated ruins. But meeting one of Sri Lanka’s famous elephants in person is by far the highlight of any trip there. There are about 7000 of them dispersed over the 22 national parks.

Professional naturalists are the only ones who should try to see all of Sri Lanka’s national parks in one trip, so we’ve narrowed it down to a select few for ecotourists with limited time. Our top recommendations for Sri Lanka’s national parks are below.

Sri Lanka wildlife safari: watching elephants

The best place to see elephants is in Uda Walawe National Park, which is located in the provinces of Sabaragamuwa and Uva.

Seeing one of Sri Lanka’s majestic elephants is virtually certain in this big and popular park on the southeastern outskirts of the island’s Hill Country, which is mostly covered with low-lying scrub.

There are about 7,000 elephants in the Sri Lankan national parks, and they travel in groups of up to 50. These elephants are spread all over the island, and the majority of them are concentrated in the national parks in the dry zone. Minneriya, Kaudulla, and the Eco-Park in the Cultural Triangle are some of the best places to spot wild elephants. Usually, tourists are able to witness hundreds of wild elephants at Minneriya National Park Safari and Kaudulla Safari.

Usually, sunrise or sunset jeep safaris are ideal for observing wild animals, with the former allowing you to return in time for breakfast and significantly reducing your perspiration levels. However, there is an exception with the Udawalawe national park, where travellers can observe a large number of wild elephants at any time of the day.

There are a couple of reputable elephant orphanages in the Uda Walawe area of Sri Lanka if you haven’t had your fill of the adorable jumbo babies yet. The Born Free Foundation’s Elephant Transit Home is a good place to begin.

Sri Lanka wildlife safari: watching leopards

It’s not impossible to spot a leopard, but the odds are far lower. There appears to be a robust population of these large felids at Uda Walawe; nevertheless, they are notoriously difficult to spot due to the abundance of cover in the area. However, crocodiles are plentiful, and numerous types of stunning birds can be seen on any given safari.

The Sri Lankan leopard is not required to compete with other cat species for attention, as is the case in other regions of the globe where leopards are found, such as Africa. In addition to the leopard, other carnivores, including lions and cheetahs, are renowned attractions in Africa. Nevertheless, in Sri Lanka, the leopard is the apex predator in the food chain, with no other competitors. The leopard is the undisputed charismatic species, and it is high on the list of “must-see” wildlife species from the perspective of a tourist attraction.

Dedicated wildlife enthusiasts are prepared to dedicate extended periods of time to the pursuit of wildlife in order to observe it. However, the popularity of wildlife attractions is contingent upon the presence of three elements for the average visitor. It must be charismatic, easily visible, and observable. The Sri Lankan leopard is capable of satisfying all three criteria with ease. It is charismatic, as it is the greatest carnivore in Sri Lanka. It is becoming increasingly apparent, particularly in specific areas (such as block 1 of the Yala National Park), which results in a high level of observability. Clear observations are frequent, as many leopards, particularly those in Yala Block 1, have become accustomed to visitors. This results in high visibility.

The elephant, another highly charismatic species, is exceedingly visible due to its “larger-than-life” presence. However, the leopard is a more elusive animal, which further enhances the exhilaration and suspense of a tourist who is “looking” for it in the national parks. However, I can still recall my initial encounter with the leopard in Yala, which occurred several decades ago. A large male was observed on a low-hanging branch of a tree, and we halted approximately 10 meters away. He gradually turned his head and gazed directly at me. He gazed at me for approximately one minute with eyes that were piercing and almost contemptuous. I will never forget those eyes. You are “hooked for life” after such an encounter.

Places to see birds in Sri Lanka

The Eastern Province’s Kumana National Park is a great alternative to the more popular destinations. Kumana National Park is easily accessible from the east coast, making it an excellent alternative to the more popular Yala and Minneriya. It features swampy grasslands and big, salty villus (natural lakes) frequented by elephants, storks, and ibises. Spectacular hornbills, multicoloured minivets, and endearing langurs and macaques all call this forest at the water’s edge home.

There are also meditation caves and decaying stupas, some of which have ancient inscriptions and statues, hidden amid the park’s rocky outcrops. A large boulder provides shade for a 9th-century reclining Buddha monument at Bambaragasthalawa. With a local guide, you can make the trek on foot from the park’s main entrance.

While elephants are the main draw, birdwatchers will find paradise in Kumana; experienced birders may see as many as 100 different species in a single day. In addition, the park is home to an estimated 40 leopards, so visitors have a good chance of seeing Sri Lanka’s most infamous predator without having to fight their way through a swarm of other jeeps.

Sri Lanka wildlife safari: Wasgamuwa National Park

The Central and North Central Provinces, specifically Wasgamuwa National Park, have the greatest concentration and variety of species. Wasgamuwa National Park, located to the south of Polonnaruwa, is a beautiful park surrounded by forested mountains and the Mahaweli River. Most of Sri Lanka’s land mammals call this park home, yet three-quarters of it has never been investigated. The forests are home to elephants, leopards, bears, and wild boar, while the grasslands are teeming with buffalo, sambar, and spotted deer.

About 150 elephants are what bring the majority of tourists to Wasgamuwa. Wasgamuwa is often overlooked by tourists and can be very quiet, especially during the week, although it is home to large herds that rival those found in Minneriya and Kaudulla national parks.

Unique to this park is the opportunity to witness elephants in their natural habitat as part of the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society’s volunteer program.

Sri Lanka wildlife safari: Bundala National Park

Bundala national park is considered to be one of the best places to watch turtles, crocodiles, and flamingos. Bundala National Park is a paradise for those who enjoy the water, with its many coastal lagoons and bird-filled marshes. The thousands of flamingos and crocodiles here steal the show, but the brilliantly coloured bee-eaters and openbill storks will delight even the most discerning twitcher. The park’s elephants are another major draw, and the busiest time to visit is in December.

Nearly twenty kilometres of the southern littoral zone between Kirinda and Hambantota are part of Bundala National Park. All five species of sea turtles found in Sri Lanka’s waters (the olive ridley, green, leatherback, hawksbill, and loggerhead) nest on the island’s beaches between October and January. As part of a night safari, guests can see the hatchlings make their way back to the ocean from April through June.

Sri Lanka wildlife safari: Yala National Park

Yala is considered one of the best national parks in the world to spot leopards. Not only that, Yala national park has the highest concentration of leopards in the world compared to any other national park of its size in the world. Yala National Park is sandwiched between the Southern and Uva Provinces and is located near the Indian Ocean. During the peak of the tourism season, Yala National Park draws in tens of thousands of visitors, making it the most visited national park in Sri Lanka.

The possibility of seeing one of Sri Lanka’s rare leopards up close is the main draw here. If you travel on a safari with a reputable and competent park operator, you have a high chance of sighting one of these rare beauties.

The southern part of Block 1 of Yala is the only part of the park that most visitors ever see. You can get away from the day-trippers by venturing into the more challenging Blocks 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Block 5 extends into the adjacent Lunugamvehera National Park on the western side of the park. It’s a picturesque spot in Yala, with a reservoir full of spooky, waterlogged trees. Elephants can be seen in Lunugamwehera to the south, while leopards and sloth bears are common here. Blocks 2, 3, and 4 in northern Yala are just as isolated and go unnoticed by visitors.

Outside of Block 1, travel in Yala necessitates advance preparation. The paths are muddy and overgrown, so going there is more like an adventure. Tree Tops Jungle Lodge is one of many jungle camps that visitors can stay at, and there are a number of tour companies (such as Kulu Safaris) that specialize in sending visitors there.

Sri Lanka wildlife safari: Lahugala National Park

The best place to combine history and birdlife is Lahugala Kitulana National Park in the Eastern Province. Lahugala National Park may be modest, but it’s well worth a visit if you’re interested in seeing birds in Sri Lanka. Visit in the late afternoon to see elephants and buffalo relaxing on the wet beru grass. Numerous kinds of forest birds, including the endangered red-faced malkoha, make their homes in the park’s tall satinwood, rosewood, and palu trees.

The massive, crumbling Neelagiri Stupa may be found on the park’s boundaries; it is believed to date back to the 2nd century BC but has never been fully explored. Magul Maha Vihara, a temple complex dating back 2000 years and located on the park’s outskirts, has also fallen into disrepair. The main road inland from Pottuvil and Arugam Bay provides easy access to the park from the east coast.

Wildlife spotting at Horton plains national park

Horton Plains National Park, which encompasses the highest plateau in Sri Lanka at an elevation of about 2000 m (6562 ft) above sea level, is a spectacular destination for birdwatchers and hikers. Regardless of where you stand, hikers and sightseers alike should make the journey from the park’s entrance to World’s End, a breathtaking cliff’s-edge viewpoint with otherworldly vistas.

The trail crosses rivers, goes by waterfalls, and winds through cloud forests until you reach an overlook known for observations of Sri Lankan bush warblers and whistling thrushes. Although the lack of mammalian wildlife is disappointing, the allure of the area’s flora and birdlife more than makes up for it.

Nuwara Eliya, a nearby hill station with a temperate temperature and decidedly English-style colonial structures, is where most tourists visiting the Horton Plains will stay. Staying in Nuwara Eliya for a few days is highly recommended; in addition to the many hiking opportunities in the area, visitors can relax with high tea at the Grand Hotel or tour local tea plantations to learn more about the process.

As the sixth-highest peak in Sri Lanka, Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) is easily accessible from Nuwara Eliya. This sacred peak has been a Christian and Buddhist pilgrimage site, respectively, for millennia because of a rock with a peculiar depression on its summit that both religions believe to be Buddha’s footprint. An exhausting, but ultimately rewarding, ascent of 5,500 stairs brings you to the summit.

Sri Lanka wildlife safari: Maduru Oya National Park

Maduru Oya National Park located to the northwest of Batticaloa, is one of Sri Lanka’s less frequented national parks. Hundreds of different species of water birds, such as storks (black-necked, painted, and woolly-necked), pelicans (spot-billed, and great), and egrets (great), congregate around the reservoir’s 500 square kilometres of fish. In an environment that is possibly more wild and magnificent than Minneriya or Kaudulla, you may also observe herds of elephants.

Maduru Oya, once a hunting place for the Veddahs, Sri Lanka’s endangered indigenous people, has a remarkable sense of antiquity. A stupa from the time of the Anuradhapura Kingdom stands in the shade of a magnificent rock on the western boundary of the park, in the Veddah community of Henanigala. The park is home to a vast wewa (man-made reservoir), and at the northern end, you can view the ruins of a dam that was built some 1400 years ago.

Although safaris to Maduru Oya are uncommon, a few tour operators provide excursions there. As part of its itinerant program of national park stays in Sri Lanka, upscale tented camp operator Mahoora operates an eco-camp here during the appropriate seasons. It’s possible that you and your safari group will be the sole visitors to the reserve.

Sri Lanka wildlife safari: Gal Oya National Park

Gal Oya is a vast, island-studded lake surrounded by a landscape of cascading mountains and old woods. Those rare visitors who make it here will have unforgettable adventures. The Gal Oya Lodge offers boat safaris and forest excursions with native Veddah guides so you can see crocodiles, turtles, and swimming elephants.

Although leopards can be seen here, they are extremely shy of humans, and this is not the best park to see one. But there are gorgeous birds like golden orioles and paradise flycatchers, as well as butterflies, geckos, monkeys, and other forest dwellers. Gal Oya is heaven on earth for peaceniks.

Sri Lanka wildlife safari: Angamedilla National Park

Anngamedilla, located east of Dambulla, was only declared a national park in 2006, yet its beauty and immaculate condition belie its young age. Parakrama Samudra, a big wewa (reservoir) surrounded by lush trees, is bookended by a stone weir that dates back 800 years and tiny camping sites used by local families.

Elephants occasionally venture into the park from the neighbouring Wasgamuwa National Park, which it combines with at its northernmost point. You may easily mix history and wildlife on a day trip from the coast by visiting this park and driving the thirty minutes to Polonnaruwa along the wewa’s edge.