List Words : Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne | 24 January

Sri Lanka's best wildlife national parks

Leopards, elephants, whales, birdlife in abundance – Sri Lanka is a wildlife lover's paradise. Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne reveals what you'll find in each of its national parks...

Sri Lanka is one of the best places in Asia for seeing wildlife. It is also one of the best all-round wildlife destinations in the world for a mix of big game, marine life and varied landscapes, all packed into a compact area with a very good tourism infrastructure.The island’s isolation from the mainland, the heavy rainfall of the two diagonally-blowing monsoons, and the country’s wide range of altitudes, have given Sri Lanka a variation in climate and biodiversity normally found only across an entire continent. On top of that, the island has become known as the easiest place in the world to see the hitherto elusive blue whale, the largest animal to have ever lived in the planet. 

Sri Lanka is proud of its natural bounty. For over 2,000 years, swathes of land have been preserved as sanctuaries by Sri Lankan royalty – Mihintale, the world’s first reserve, was created here in the third century BC. Now there are 100 areas of protected land in the country, and this is the pick of the bunch...

1: Yala National Park

Leopard in Yala National Park (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne)

Best for: Leopards – the park hosts around 30, some of which are fairly bold for this normally secretive cat.

Drive time from Colombo: Six hours

What’s nearby? Top-class surfing at Arugam Bay.

Located in the south-east of Sri Lanka, Yala is a beautiful area of lowland dry scrub sitting on a long stretch of coastline, punctuated by rocky outcrops. It is the premier national park of Sri Lanka, and arguably one of the best for mammals in Asia.

The top draw is the Sri Lankan leopard, a sub-species endemic to the country; in certain areas of the park, the average leopard density is as high as one cat to every square kilometre. During the fruiting of the palu trees in June and July, sloth bears are often observed.

Other animals you might spot include sambar (a large deer), spotted deer, buffalo, wild pig, stripe-necked and ruddy mongooses, langur monkey, toque monkey, golden jackal and Indian palm civet.

The combination of freshwater, marine, scrub and woodland areas ensures a high diversity of birds. Indeed, the park hosts 220 different types, and serious twitchers have recorded 100 species in a single day.

Ardent birdwatchers should also visit Bundala National Park (an hour away) or the Palatupana Salt Pans (ten minutes away), especially for migrant shorebirds.

2: Udawalawe National Park

Elephants gather in Udawalawe NP (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne)

Best for: Wild elephants – there are around 500 in the park.

Drive time from Colombo: Four hours

What’s nearby? Tea-plantation-covered hillsides.

Created to protect the watershed of the enormous Udawalawe Reservoir, this park, just south of the central mountains, has extensive stretches of grassland as well as scrub jungle and riverine forest. It’s the best in the continent for observing Asian elephants in the wild; in fact elephant sightings are virtually guaranteed, even if you only go on one game drive.

Otherwise, the park is poor for viewing mammals, but birdwatchers will enjoy the presence of fabulously named raptors such as the changeable hawk eagle, serpent eagle and grey-headed fish eagle.

3: Wasgamuwa National Park

Elephants play in the mud (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne)

Best for: Elephants – 150 feed on the park’s scrub.

Drive time from Colombo: Five hours

What’s nearby? The fascinating, Buddha-packed caves of Dambulla.

Wasgamuwa is in the dry lowlands of the North Central Province, 40km north of the richly bio-diverse Knuckles Massif. All of the big game is found in Wasgamuwa, but bears and leopards are pretty elusive. However, it is very good for observing family units of elephants, still relatively wild with unpredictable temperaments.

4: Sinharaja Forest Reserve

Ceylon blue magpie (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne)

Best for: Birds – the mixed flocks here have been subject to the longest study of the phenomenon.

Drive time from Colombo: Five hours

What’s nearby? Head due south to the laid-back beaches of Mirissa.

Situated in the wet south-west of the island, this is the country’s premier rainforest. The canopy towers up to 45m in places and more than half of the trees here are found nowhere else in the world. Mixed-species bird flocks are a key feature of Sinharaja. Around six endemic birds may make up one flock, including species such as red-faced malkoha, green-billed coucal and Sri Lankan blue magpie. Animals present include leopard, purple-faced langur, barking deer and three types of squirrel.

5: Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks

Minneriya National Park (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne)

Best for: Seasonal elephants and large flocks of little cormorants.

Drive time from Colombo: Five-and-a-half hours

What’s nearby? The ruined monasteries and palaces of Polonnaruwa.

These two parks are within half an hour’s drive of each other in the North Central Province, situated around two large reservoirs. Scrub jungle surrounds the lakes and contains many mammals, but game viewing is generally poor – except for the wonderful seasonal congregation of elephants. The ‘gathering’ takes place in Minneriya during September and October, when over 300 elephants come together on the bed of Minneriya Lake, which dries out to create a lush grassland.

6: Horton Plains National Park

Horton Plains National Park (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne)

Best for: Birdwatching around the stunning 880m drop-off of World’s End.

Drive time from Colombo: Five hours

What’s nearby? The colonial hill station of Nuwara Eliya.

Towering up in the central highlands, Horton Plains is the highest plateau on the island. The cloud forests here are rich in endemic plants and animals that have adapted to the cooler climes (temperatures can fall below freezing at night).

Birds such as the Sri Lankan whistling thrush and Sri Lankan bush warbler are best seen here. The dwarf lizard, found only in the montane zone, has evolved the ability to give birth to live young in order to avoid the problems of laying in such egg-chilling temperatures.

7: Wilpattu National Park

Sloth bear (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne)

Best for: Sightings of the elusive sloth bear.

Drive time from Colombo: Four hours

What’s nearby? The sacred 2,000-year-old bodhi tree amid the monuments of the ancient city of Anuradhapura.

Wilpattu, Sri Lanka’s largest park, is situated in the dry lowlands of the island’s north-west and comprises a series of lakes – or villus – with varying degrees of freshness and salinity.

The park reopened in 2003 after nearly 15 years of closure. Over time, the wildlife should recover to its former abundance and become more habituated to vehicles – at the moment the animals are wary of any human presence.

Wilpattu was famous for its leopards, and big-cat enthusiasts are hoping this reputation will return. The park’s fauna is similar to Yala, but visitors also have a chance of seeing barking deer.

8: Mannar Island

Mannar Island (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne)

Best for: Shorebirds and gulls such as Heuglin’s gull would have flown over 6,500km from Arctic Russia.

Drive time from Colombo: Five hours.

What’s nearby? Wilpattu National Park. Mannar is also great for kite surfing.

Mannar Island is like one large nature reserve. Together with the complex of estuaries and other coastal wetlands on the adjoining mainland, it is an internationally important migratory stop over for wading birds. There is a high density of the nocturnal grey slender loris on the island.

9: Knuckles Wilderness

Kangaroo lizard (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne)

Best for: Endemic lizards such as the dwarf lizard and Tennant’s leaf-nosed lizard.

Drive time from Colombo: Five hours.

What’s nearby? The medieval hill capital of Kandy with the famed Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic.

The Knuckles wilderness is an area of rolling grasslands and cloud forests home to some species of plants and animals found nowhere else in the world. The area is also rich in legend with battles from the epic Ramayana having been played out here.

10: The whale watching triangle: Mirissa, Kalpitiya and Trincomalee

Spinner dolphin (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne)

Best for: Whale-watching, especially blues (Mirissa); dolphins and sperm whales (Kalpitiya); blue whales from the shore and sperm whales (Trincomalee).

Drive time from Colombo: 1.5 hours (Mirissa); 3 hrs (Kalpitiya); 7 hrs (Trincomalee).

What’s nearby? The Dutch fort and port city of Galle (Mirissa);Wilpattu NP and the Barr Reef Sanctuary, for snorkelling (Kalpitiya); Many rural coastal fishing villages (Trincomalee).

Mirissa, in the south and close to the Dutch fort and port city of Galle, is studded with luxury villas and great food. It’s probably the most developed for whale watching tourism, following a media blitz in May 2008 that it was the best for blue whale. The encounter rate is on average over 80% in the months from December to March. 

Kalpitiya, a peninsula in the north-west, is famous for its dolphins and periodic visits by super-pods of sperm whales, the largest gatherings in the world accessible to tourists. The peninsula is also close to Wilpattu National Park, and the Bar Reef Marine Sanctuary is great for snorkelling.

Trincomalee, in the north-east has a submarine canyon cutting in close to shore. Blue whales are sometimes seen from the pool-side of resorts and Swami Rock is the best shore-based location for views of blue whales.

11: The rainforests of Galle

Galle Fort Bay (Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne)

Best for: A blend of beach and rainforest for flora enthusiasts.

Drive time from Colombo: One hour to Galle, plus another half hour to Hiyare or Kottawa.

What’s nearby? The Dutch fort and port city of Galle, studded with luxury villas, great cuisine and colonial history.

Hiyare and Kottawa are two rainforest sites less than 20km (half an hour) from the port city of Galle. Further away (one-and-a-half hours) is Kanneliya, the largest remaining tract of lowland rainforest in Sri Lanka. All three make it possible to combine a beach holiday with a rainforest safari to see some endemic plants and animals, especially the giant dipterocarp trees which are some of the most important timber trees in Asia.

Useful reading

Wild Sri Lanka (John Beaufoy Publishing) and Sri Lankan Wildlife (Bradt Travel Guides) provide a very good overview. John Beaufoy Publishing and Bloomsbury have photographic guides to birds, butterflies and dragonflies, mammals and reptiles.

Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne has broken many stories that are the subject of television documentaries. These include that Sri Lanka is the best for blue whale, it has the largest gatherings of sperm whales and has the largest recurring concentration of elephants in the world. He was also the first to publicise Sri Lanka as a big game safari destination for leopards and other wildlife. British TV naturalist Bill Oddie stated that no single individual has done so much to brand a country for its wildlife. With over 350 articles and 15 books, his efforts to popularise wildlife has made him a wildlife celebrity in Sri Lanka. He can be found on Facebook and Linkedin. For a bundle of free content, click here.