Wildlife holidays in Sri Lanka

According to Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya, the former Director General of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWC), Sri Lanka is the only country in the world where travelers can witness the world’s largest marine mammal, the blue whale, in the morning and see the world’s largest terrestrial mammal, the elephant, in the afternoon, all on the same day. It seems that travelers around the world have already picked up the importance of Sri Lanka as a destination for wildlife holidays. We have seen an increased demand for Sri Lanka safari tours over the last few years. More and more tourists are interested in venturing on Wildlife holidays in Sri Lanka as they visit other historical, religious sites as well as pristine beaches.

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The perfect wildlife holidays in Sri Lanka

In February 2023, the reputed magazine Forbes declared that Sri Lanka had the top wildlife safaris outside of Africa for the year 2023.

“The nation has one of the planet’s densest populations of leopards and is arguably the best place to reliably see these magnificent cats, even more so than most of Africa. There are also Asian elephants, peacocks, water buffalo, monkeys, and sloth bears,” it said.

From unique wildlife and tropical beaches to untouched jungles and isolated rural villages with aborigines, few destinations in Asia match Sri Lanka’s natural drama. Sri Lanka Wildlife Trip includes visiting the Vedda community, exploring tropical rainforests, and conquering the highest mountain in Sri Lanka.

6 places to visit on wildlife holidays in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is home to two dozen wildlife reserves and national parks, all of which provide the best setting for wildlife holidays. However, only a small portion of Sri Lanka’s wildlife reserves serve as destinations for wildlife holidays. We explore six options for wildlife holidays in Sri Lanka in this blog post.

  1. Udawalawe national park
  2. Udawalawe elephant transit camp
  3. Dambana
  4. Hikkaduwa marine sanctuary
  5. Adams peak
  6. Sinharaja rain forest

Udawalawe Wildlife Trip Sri Lanka: best for elephants

Udawalawe national park is a popular trip place in Sri Lanka for 5-day trips as well as many other tour packages. Udawalawe national park is also a one-day trip place for travellers anchored on the east coast of Sri Lanka.

Wildlife Trip Sri Lanka: Elephant transit camp

Elephant Transit Camp is a project that rehabilitates abandoned orphan baby elephants in various parts of Sri Lanka. The transit camp also trains the little ones to get familiar with their natural habitat by exposing them to Udawalawe National Park. Milk-feeding babies have made a habit of visiting the elephant transit camp every day during feeding time (5 times a day), and the rest of the day they are living in the national park.

Positive impact of Elephant transit camp

So far, the project has been able to rescue hundreds of babies and ultimately release them into the jungle. The transit camp sits next to the Udawalawe National Park. The wildlife department also established the museum, which is dedicated to Sri Lankan elephants, was also established by the wildlife department and sits near the elephant transit camp to educate visitors on the services rendered by the elephant transit camp. The visitors are also able to learn about elephants’ lifestyles and many other aspects of wild elephants.

After feeding, small babies are lumbered into the jungle and diminish amidst the thick undergrowth. ‘They will reappear at 5:00 pm, during which we will prepare their evening meal of milk,’ Chamath stated. ‘All the babies are very friendly,’ said Chamath as he looked at the elephants that retreat to the jungle. 

Of all Sri Lanka’s wild inhabitants, the elephant is the most popular, and it is also the most commonly seen creature during wildlife holidays in Sri Lanka, especially at Udawalawe National Park. The island boasts a wide distribution of elephants, visible in both dry zone forests and rainforests.

Impact of deforestation for the wildlife

The natural habitat of wild creatures in Sri Lanka is under threat due to deforestation in the backdrop of expanding human settlements. Deforestation has accelerated in recent years as economic activities expanded, making wildlife sanctuaries such as Udawalawe National Park more important than ever to maintain ecological balance.

The largest wildlife reserve in the Sabaragamuwa province of Sri Lanka spans over 308.2 km2 of pristine forest, featuring a mix of dry zone and wet zone trees and plants. It has a permanent population of 500 elephants, and among them are many rehabilitated orphan babies who roam the jungle and return to the elephant transit camp at feeding times.

‘Some animals are very social, very friendly, and stay close to us,’ explains Chamath. But others we may see only very rarely—especially during the dry season when they can’t find food and water within the park. During the dry season, they may break into surrounding villages in search of food and water, and in that kind of situation, we have to be in action and chase them back to the jungle,”  said Chamath.

Wildlife Trip Sri Lanka: Dambana, best for tribal culture

At Dambana, daybreak is the busiest time of the day. Men are busily sharpening arrowheads for hunting wild animals, while their wives cook rice and curry for breakfast, while some others get ready for another day’s work in the village rice fields. Outside, dogs stretch in the sunshine, goats sniff around the stilts of the house, and roosters’ cock-a-doodle-doos echo across the farmlands. The smell of spices, wood fires and charcoal hangs in the air. It’s a vision of village life that seems little changed over many hundred years, and that’s just how the inhabitants of Dambana want it.

The village of Dambana is located along the verdant banks of the Mahaweli River, a five-hour road trip from Colombo on the Kandy-Mahiyangana-Padiyatalawa main road. It belongs to the Vedda community of the island (Sri Lankan aborigines), the last remaining generation of the earliest inhabitants of Sri Lanka. Wanniyalaeto is a minority indigenous group, the largest of the four or so indigenous tribes that make up the population of the Vedda community in Sri Lanka.

The people who belong to the Vedda community are jungle dwellers, living a subsistence lifestyle in harmony with nature and getting food, medicine, and materials from the jungle. Most people live in mud houses thatched with coconut fronds or hay and have little access to facilities. However, the developing economy is largely influencing the lifestyle of the modern Vedda community; the young generation is leaving the tribal village and moving to cities in search of a better life and high-paid salaries.

‘In the past, we collected almost everything we needed from the jungle, from woods for houses to medicine to food such as honey and meat,’ explains Mudiyanse, a guide from the village, who helps the visitors with village tours in Dambana. The village tour helps visitors explore the culture of the Vedda community. ‘It provided us with medicine, food, water, and building materials, as well as told us stories that helped us understand our past.

Your generation’s disregard for customs, traditions, and language is causing the Vedda community to shrink daily. The young generation leaves the community and forgets their traditional values. The village’s people still heavily rely on the nearby jungle for food such as honey. Government regulations prohibiting the killing of wild animals have largely subdued their traditional method of hunting. Over the last decade, a large number of villages have given up the practice of hunting and adopted the lifestyle of farmers, cultivating rice, vegetables and fruits. 

At the moment, about 50 families live in Dambana, a rural village. Each family lives in a private house, which includes a small school for children and a meeting area. The houses are small and still built from natural materials readily available in the surrounding area, such as mud and clay, coconut fronds, and hay. 

The villagers of Dambana spend their time as their forefathers would have—hunting, gathering honey from the jungle, tending to the rice fields—although they now have access to modern amenities such as mobile phones, running water, satellite TV, and pipe-born water.

Generally, the villagers of Dambana remain sheltered from the bustle of the cities, particularly during sunsets when the air is filled with the rasp of insects, the chatter of birds, and the sound of owls, which, while considered a warning to the modern world, does not always have a negative impact.

‘I spend a lot of time in the city, but it’s in the forest where I feel at home,’ says Kavita, as he prepares a Sri Lankan-style spicy meat curry. I feel in touch with my ancestors here. It’s where I’m most alive.’ He kneels and breathes life into the fire, sending spirals of smoke into the air.

Wildlife Trip Sri Lanka to Hikkaduwa marine sanctuary: Best for the underwater world

As the sun dips towards the horizon, the Hikkaduwa beach prepares for vibrant and electrifying night shows, while a few travelers continue to splash around on the shore. ‘This is always the best time of the day,’ says Dharmasena, who is working in a beach restaurant in Hikkaduwa. We call it magic time. And on an evening like this, you can see why, eh?’

What is most striking about this beach resort is its underwater world, filled with corals, exotic fish species, sea turtles and seaweeds. Hikkaduwa Marine Sanctuary, a 1-hour glass-bottom boat trip from the coastal city of Hikkaduwa, is one of Sri Lanka’s best-known places to see fascinating marine life. Spread over a little more than 100 hectares of ocean, the park is popular for its glassy waters and rich marine life. At weekends, local travelers pack into glass-bottom boats and float above the shallow sea in search of beautiful marine life. Some travelers, mostly foreigners, skip over the palm-fringed beaches to bask on the manicured beaches or dive amongst their coral reefs and sandbanks.

Hikkaduwa Beach is one of the most popular nightlife beaches on Sri Lanka’s west coast. Hundreds of beach restaurants lined the shore, complete with barbecues, bars, international buffets, and cafés to cater to a stream of snorkelers and sun-worshippers.

The Marine Sanctuary is well-known for snorkeling and diving, but for the most impressive scenery, you need to hit the road from November to April. During this period, the water is crystal clear and safe to dive due to the absence of underwater currents. During this period, the sea off Hikkaduwa is extremely calm. From November to April, seasonal fish species congregate on the coral reefs of Hikkaduwa, where they interact with permanent residents of the reef.

Foliaceous Montipora species, comprising 60 species across 31 genera, primarily compose the coral reef. Both encrusting and branching species are present. In are coral species such as Faviidae and Poritidae in the inshore areas of the reef in massive colonies. Staghorn, elkhorn, cabbage, brain, table and star corals are all present in the reef. The reef also recorded over 170 species of reef fish belonging to 76 genera.

There is a large concentration of seagrass and marine algae belonging to genera Halimeda and Caulerpa in the seabed depth ranging from 5–10 m.

This seagrass provides a habitat for dugongs and sea turtles, while it is a favorite food for prawns.

Eight species of ornamental fish, along with vertebrates and invertebrates such as crabs, prawns, shrimps, oysters, and seaworms, inhabit the reef. Hikkaduwa is home to the endemic coral species Porites desilver. Chlorurus, Kaikoura, and Pomacentrus proteus are two reef fish species endemic to Sri Lanka. The outer slope of the reef is home to the blacktip reef shark. The waters of Hikkaduwa are home to three sea turtles, the hawksbill, green, and olive ridley, all of which are considered threatened marine creatures worldwide.

Wildlife Trip Sri Lanka: Adams peak is best for mountains

As the travelers gathered on top of the mountain to feel the rising sun’s rays, the amber-colored morning sun rose from the horizon. Every day, a large number of Buddhists, as well as many tourists, embark on Adam’s adventure to speak. For Buddhists, it is one of the most important pilgrimages to worship the footprint of Buddha. For tourists, it is a thrilling adventure to enjoy beautiful nature. 

A yellow moon hangs on the horizon like a paper lantern as climbers inch across Adams’s peak granite slopes. Ahead, a line of overhanging bright white lights paves the way for climbers amidst the thick jungle. ‘Only an hour till dawn,’ says our guide Silva, pointing towards the mountain’s tip, which has a small house and flat surface around it, which is enough for about 100 people to gather. outcrop, just visible against the inky sky. ‘And it looks clear at the top. We’ve got good luck; the mountain spirits must be happy!’

Trip to Adams peak

Adams peak sits roughly three hours inland from Colombo on the western slope of Sri Lanka’s central mountain range. The mountains are the 3rd highest mountain in Sri Lanka and loom on the skyline resembling the teeth of a great granite saw, surrounded by tropical forest. Officially Adams peak belongs to the peak wilderness, which is a protected natural habitat with high biodiversity. Adams peak is one of the highest mountains and its isolated position gives it the look of a gigantic volcano.

According to the geologists, the mountain resulted from the movement of tectonic plates many million years ago, which thrust the underlying rock skywards and formed Adams peak and the sprawling summit plateau along with other peaks such as Mt, Pidurutalagala, mount Knuckles.

Historical facts about Adams peak

The first recorded ascent was in the 4th century by a Chinese monk, Fa-Hien, later it was conquered by monks, kings, ministers, travellers and many others. Nowadays it’s considered one of Asia’s most accessible mountains, with about 50,000 Buddhist devotees attempting the climb every year.

Climbing the Adams peak mountain

The climb is usually split over two days. Day one involves a six-hour climb on steep steps from the foot of the peak to the Buddhist shrine at the top at 2,243m. Along the way, the trail passes through distinct habitats, from steamy rainforests, and perennial waterways, to montane meadows to a rocky plateau. Some sections are steeply stepped; others wind their way through a jumble of rocky slabs and knotted roots.

Beyond Indikatu Pahana is the last episode of the climb, which lasts about 30 minutes, and it is the most difficult part of the climb resulting from the sharp ascend.

The reward for completing the arduous journey to the mountain peak

While the views from the summit are spectacular, it’s Adam’s peak natural diversity that makes it memorable: pitcher plants and orchids bloom alongside the trail, including many species found nowhere else in Sri Lanka.

Watching the spectacular scenery as the rising sun is the main objective of the pilgrims who climb Adams peak, as ribbons of mist swirl around the mountainside, and Buddhist shine sits on the top of the mountain light up like signal beacons. Six months from November to April is good to conquer the seasonal pilgrimage site, which is also the main tourist season on the island.

Adams peak tour is one of the most popular one-day trips in Sri Lanka Seerendipity tours organizes this one-day tour from Colombo and it can also be booked for every beach resort on the west coast.

Wildlife Trip Sri Lanka: exploring Sinharaja rainforest

‘There is one important thing that we learn from the jungle,’ says nature guide, Sanath, who leads us through the jungle trail edged by ferns and soaring trees and plants. ‘nature never rests, it’s never quiet here.’ Sanath cocks an ear to listen to the cacophony of sounds: bird sounds, humming crickets and creaking sounds as the trees top brushing each other, underpinned by the constant buzz of insects.

A hooting call rings out, descending into a throaty cackle that sounds eerily close to a human laugh. It’s a Sri Lanka grey hornbill (Ocyceros gingalensis), Sanath explains, one of the twenty-five endemic bird species found in Sri Lanka. ‘It is a big bird growing up to about 45 centimetres (18 in) in length’, explains our nature guide.

About Sinharaja rainforest

Nestled in the western province of Sri Lanka, 150 km from Colombo, the Sinharaja rainforest is one of the oldest rainforests in the world, with roots dating back to 180 million years (the Gondwana supercontinent era). Within its borders, the vast rainforest has mountain peaks and huge granite rocks. It is one of the largest remaining tracts of verging forests in the world. Many scientific expeditions to the jungle in the past have confirmed Sinharaja’s high biodiversity, earning it the title of super-biodiversity hotspot.

Due to its ecological importance, Sinharaja is very popular among travelers. There is a very high demand for Sri Lanka rain forest tours, and tour operators such as Seerendipity Tour organize trips to Sinharaja rain forest on a daily basis. 

The researchers were amazed by what they discovered within the 11,187-hectare expanse of rainforest. You can present Sinharaja as a UNESCO world heritage site, a man-and-biosphere reserve, or a national heritage wilderness; each term highlights its natural wealth.

The Sinharaja rainforest is the largest constituent of the green canopy in the wet zone of Sri Lanka, amounting to about 43%. The Sinharaja Forest serves as a rich source of biodiversity and is home to some of the rarest animal species, including the slender Lorris. While white monkeys caper through the trees, many rare bird species, such as jungle fowl, dig the ground in search of worms, and rafflesia flowers bloom on the forest floor; perennial waterways cascade through the boulders, making a spectacular spray, and afterwards flow through the jungle, past agathis and Soraya trees as tall as seven-story buildings.

Even today, only a fraction of the forest has been explored; remarkably, only about a few dozen people have been into the jungle’s core. With many forests on the island facing human wrath, Sinharaja has emerged as a potent symbol of Sri Lanka’s need to preserve its natural heritage.

‘We must look after this natural wealth,’ Sanath says as he leads the way across a bridge suspended by a shallow stream with crystal-clear water. Dappled light rains down, and colorful birds flit through the treetops. ‘I don’t know anywhere else quite like this.’

‘Part of the reason for Sinharaja’s survival is its location away from the cities and people living in the bordering villages’, says Sanath, who is also from the bordering village. We get a lot of things from the jungle, like honey, collecting firewood, and sometimes building materials, but we are not harming the trees and plants. We are always on the lookout to prevent any illicit logging in the forest.

Only mid-day hard trekking allows you to explore the forest, and the park does not allow camps. Sinharaja’s wildness is exactly what makes it precious; a stay on the rim more than acquaints you with this unique appeal.

‘There’s not much room left for wild places,’ says Sanath, as darkness descends on the jungle and bats flutter home to roost. However, once they vanish, regaining them becomes impossible. And without them, Sri Lanka will be a much poorer place.’