Sri Lanka’s best national parks
The island’s dwindling group of Asian elephants stands at around 6,000, while its thriving leopard population is one of the world’s densest. With help from an expert driver/guide and a little modern technology, you’ve an excellent chance of spotting both.
A roll call of smaller celebrities begins with familiar names like Sambar deer, muntjac, sloth bear, jungle cat, civet, mongoose… macaque, langur, loris, porcupine, saltwater croc, sea turtle, fruit bat, vampire bat, flying fox, giant flying squirrel… and reels on until you reach intriguing unknowns, perhaps less likely to make it on TV – the wrinkle-lipped free-tailed bat, for example, or the critically endangered Nillu rat, endemic to Sri Lanka.
Ornithologists are thoroughly spoilt, too, with over 400 listed species, more than half of which are permanent residents, including 26 endemics. Offshore, Sri Lankan waters are excellent for whale and dolphin watching – Minke, blue, humpback, killer and bottlenose are all spotted here, alongside dozens of less famous cetaceans.
Sri Lanka is especially suited to taking the kids on their first wildlife holiday. Its landscape is stunning, but accessible, with plenty of easy treks, and relaxing respite available in the lush, temperate, tea-plantation-swathed highland interior.
Whether you’re taking your family, or keen to indulge your own passion for wildlife, these are the best Sri Lankan national parks to start with:
Wilpattu. North West. Best for leopards, Sri Lankan elephants.
Sri Lanka’s largest NP, Wilpattu covers just over 1.3 thousand sq km of dry lowlands, dense scrub jungle, and a unique network of over 50 wetland areas called “Villu”. These shallow natural lakes support Wilpattu’s ecosystem, filling with rainwater during monsoon season (Oct-Jan, in north & east Sri Lanka), and keeping the park’s inhabitants alive while the waters slowly dwindle throughout the May-Sept drought. Wilpattu’s leopard population is world-renowned, although still being counted. The leopards share their home with Sri Lankan elephants, sloth bears, crocs, cobra, pythons, turtles, spoonbills and the large white egret, to name a few.
Yala (aka Rahuna). South East. Best for leopards, birds.
Boasting one of the world’s densest leopard populations, Yala was once home to several of Sri Lanka’s ancient civilisations, but lay abandoned for centuries before becoming the first national park on Sri Lanka in 1900. It’s internationally classified as an “Important Bird Area”, protecting 215 bird species, including six of the island’s endemics. Its coastline is visited by five globally endangered sea turtle species, with mammals like the red slender loris and fishing cat sharing the habitat with elephants and water buffalo.
Minneriya. Central North. Excellent for elephants.
Deep in an area known (due to its concentration of ancient sites) as the Cultural Triangle, Minneriya sits alongside some of the most impressive ancient engineering you’ll ever see – a great rainwater reservoir, built in the 3rd century AD, around which up to 300 elephants cluster together in an annual phenomenon known as the “Elephant Gathering”. Along with two other nearby NPs, Minneriya forms an “elephant corridor”, along which the herds safely migrate. You’ve an excellent chance of seeing elephants here all year round, along with 170 bird species and plenty of interesting mammals and reptiles.
Uda Walawe (also Udawalawe). Central South. Easy elephant spotting & elephant orphanage
Even casual visitors are virtually guaranteed to see an elephant at Uda Walawe, whose elephant population numbers around 500, with individual herds of up to 100. The park’s Elephant Transfer Home cares for around 40 orphans, attempting to release each of them back to their natural habitat. You also have an excellent chance of spotting numerous eagle species above the park.
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Suzie Saw is a professional writer who loves nature, being outdoors, gazing at maps (especially railway maps) and planning her next adventure in distant (and not so distant) lands