For many visitors to Sri Lanka, the wildlife is a major draw. Elephants, leopards, sloth bears, crocodiles are among the many species that inhabit the island, and the protected National Parks offer compelling glimpses into their natural habitats. The softness of Sri Lanka’s wilderness can sometimes be overshadowed by the majesty of the world’s more famous safari destinations, but we enthusiastically recommend it. Arriving with the mindset of finding a different kind of landscape means you can really revel in the extraordinary wildlife experiences the island has to offer, both onshore and at sea.
Obviously there's a lot more, this is just to get you started...
Yala National Park is by far the most well-known of Sri Lanka’s expanses of wilderness. Its most famous residents are the leopards that prowl through the park, and it reputedly holds the world’s largest concentration of these elusive cats. They’re easier to spot amid the park’s sparse vegetation, but you shouldn’t be too surprised if you don’t see one - they can see you! Aside from the leopards, Asian elephants, sambar deer and monkeys, Yala also has a high concentration of tourists, which can sometimes feel uncomfortable. High-quality safari operators mitigate this by being mindful of the timings of their visits, but it’s something to be aware of. Outstanding accommodation options add another level to the park experience, particularly the glamping opportunities from Mahoora and Leopard Trails.
If elephants are your thing, Udawalawe is a delight. This huge reserve is home to an estimated 500 of them, easily spotted ambling through the flat grasslands. A lush, green landscape of low-lying bushes, wild flowers, a vast reservoir, and sunken trees provides a backdrop to not only the elephants but also basking crocodiles, skittish deer, and eagles soaring overhead. Mingling with the unmistakable smell of the elephants is the heady aroma of the wild herbs that cover the landscape. Cascades of colourful butterflies swarm alongside the progressing jeeps. Some people describe Udawalawe as a little underwhelming compared to the royalty of Yala or Wilpattu, but it really isn’t. Just make sure you slow down to appreciate it.
If you become ‘templed out’ in the Cultural Triangle, an afternoon in Minneriya National Park is an instant remedy. An elephantine interlude awaits, for pachyderms are what this park is known for. Herds of elephants regularly make their way to the giant reservoir that dominates the landscape, created by an ancient king 1,800 years ago. Between April and October is the best time to visit due to the huge number of animals drawn to the reservoir to drink in a dramatic annual event known as ‘the elephant gathering’. However, visits at any time of year are likely to gift you at least one elephant sighting, and more often ten. Crocodiles, sambar deer and leopards can also be found here, but sightings are much rarer.
Anticipation builds as your jeep bumps along the paths of Wilpattu National Park, and the early morning mist lends an ethereal filter to the waiting forest. After all, Sri Lanka’s largest National Park is also one of its most mysterious. Science is just starting to build a true picture of this complex ecosystem, a unique wilderness of scrubby jungle sheltering abundant bird-life, open grassland, and wetland areas known as ‘villu’. These shallow natural lakes fill with rainwater and provide perfect watering holes for sloth bears, elephants, and the elusive leopards. The real beauty of Wilpattu is having the chance to appreciate all of this without tussling for space with other safari-goers. The trade-off? Wildlife spotting can be more challenging, requiring persistence, a keen eye, and expert guidance.
If you flew a drone over Gal Oya’s dense forest and saw the true scale of its remoteness, it would take your breath away. The few travellers who make it to this part of the island are rewarded with a deep, natural stillness - in fact, you and a handful of fellow hotel guests are likely to be the only visitors. Witness the majesty of the park’s largest inhabitants, the elephants, moving freely through the varied terrain or swimming between the small islands of the Senanayaka Samudra Reservoir. There are leopards here, too, but they’re much harder to spot, except via camera trap footage. Combined with a stay at the excellent Gal Oya Lodge, this park provides one of the world’s great travel adventures.
There are an astonishing 26 National Parks in Sri Lanka and the above selection showcases some of our favourites, but they’re not alone. Some parks run contiguously with smaller, lesser-known ones, and can be visited in sequence. Others are still finding their feet in newer zones that have yet to recover their biodiversity, so remain off limits for the time being. Chat with our Destination Specialists about which other parks should vie for your attention; those which best combine your personal interests and existing route, and can realistically be included in one trip. If you’re keen, you can always plan a return visit to explore them further...
Combine the island’s top wildlife crowd pleasers with some magnificent hidden gems and cultural highlights before spending some time on the beach.