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11 Incredible Places to See Wildlife in Sri Lanka

Author: Charlotte Boswell

Sri Lanka is a wildlife enthusiast’s paradise. This tropical island harbours an incredible selection of flora and fauna and is home to some of the finest national parks of the subcontinent. Home to a variety of species including the elusive leopard, regal elephant, blue whale and exotic birds, below is a list of the best places to see diverse and exciting wildlife on a tailor made holiday to Sri Lanka.

1. Yala National Park

Located on Sri Lanka’s south east coast and established as a protected area in 1938, Yala National Park is a large reserve with a mixture of habitats ranging from open parkland and dense jungle, to a myriad of flooded lagoons and high coastal sand dunes. This varied terrain supports a wide range of flora and fauna. 

The popular Yala National Park is believed to have the world’s highest concentration of leopards. The average density of these majestic creatures is as high as one cat to every square kilometre, although sightings of the elusive leopard are still rare. Other animals you might spot whilst in Yala include both sambar and spotted deer, wild boar, crocodile, langur and toque monkey, golden jackal and even the sloth bear during June and July when the palu tree fruits. Birdlife is also abundant here with over 200 species recorded and the reserve is a perfect combination of freshwater, marine, scrub and woodland areas for the diversity of birds. 

Leopards in Sri Lanka
Sri Lankan leopard

2. Sinharaja Forest Reserve

A UNESCO-listed World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve, Sinharaja Forest Reserve is the last viable area of primary tropical rainforest in Sri Lanka featuring tumbling waterfalls, bubbling pools and emerald ferns. Situated in the south west of the island, the forest’s canopy towers up to 45m and astonishingly over two-thirds of the trees are endemic, many of them even considered rare.

However, one of the main reasons to visit Sinharaja is for the excellent birdwatching. The reserve supports over 80% of the island’s bird species as well as being a habitat for endemic birds such as the green-billed coucal, the blue magpie and the red-faced malkoha. Butterflies, insects, amphibians and reptiles also live in this rich biodiverse reserve as well as mammals such as the rare leopard, purple-faced langur, rusty spotted cat and three types of squirrel. 

Sinharaja Butterfly
Butterfly in Sinharaja / Image credit: Thimindu Goonatillake

3. Udawalawe National Park

Udawalawe National Park just south of Sri Lanka’s central mountains, is a large reserve made up of 119 square miles of grassland, scrub jungle and riverine forest. The main attraction of the park is the large concentration of Asian elephants found here, Udawalawe is home to over 400 of these gentle giants and it is almost guaranteed to see them whilst on safari. A favourite hangout for the herds of elephants is the Walawe Reservoir where the creatures come to drink during times of water scarcity.

Udawalawe National Park is also home to some other exciting wildlife including the mugger crocodile, sambar, spotted and barking deer, wild boar, water buffalo and jackal whilst the birding is excellent with nearly 200 species recorded. November to March is the optimal time for birdwatching expeditions with the chance to spot exciting raptors such as the changeable hawk-eagle, serpent eagle and grey-headed fish eagle.

Udawalwe elephants sri lanka
Udawalawe elephants

4. Horton Plains

Up in the central highlands, the Horton Plains measure up to an impressive 2,100 metres above sea level, making it the highest plateau in Sri Lanka and consequently named of the ‘Roof of the Island’. The plains comprise largely of cloud forest and lush montane grasslands which are rich in endemic plants and animals that have adapted to the cool climate.

Whilst the elephant disappeared from this region back in the 1940s, the Horton Plains are home to a wide variety of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The most common mammal seen is the sambar deer who skirts through the long grasses and moves in large herds. Giant squirrels, wild boars, rusty-spotted cats and purple-faced langurs are amongst some of the 24 species of mammal found here, and the Horton Plains slender loris, one of the world’s most endangered primates, can also be found in the highlands. Rare lizard species such as the rhino-horned lizard reside in the cloud forests, and for bird enthusiasts there are both a huge range of migratory and endemic birds to watch.

Sambar Deer Horton Plains
Sambar deer / Image credit: Sambar Deer

5. Hikkaduwa Marine National Park

Declared a Nature Reserve in 1988 and then upgraded to national park status in 2002, the Hikkaduwa National Park in the southern province is one of only two marine national parks in Sri Lanka. Although the southern coastline is home to many coral reefs, the reefs in Hikkaduwa are the most diverse and accessible and offer some of the country’s best snorkelling and diving opportunities.

The main reef of Hikkaduwa sits in a sheltered lagoon, it is a typical fringing reef with an average depth of about 5 metres. The coral is colourful and diverse with around 60 different species including boulder and encrusting corals, small-strands of Acropora coral and the cabbage-like Montipora coral. The seagrass is home to sea turtles, whilst tropical reef fish such as parrot fish, angel fish and butterfly fish skirt through the corals. Along the outer slope of the reef, blacktip reef sharks can be found along with hawksbill and green turtles.

Hikkaduw Marine Park Sri Lanka
Coral reef in Hikkaduwa / Image credit: Hikkaduwa Highlights
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6. Minneriya National Park

Minneriya National Park sits in the north central province and with just over 300 square miles it remains one of the smallest parks in Sri Lanka. Despite the reserve’s small size, it is home to a range of terrains including grasslands and thick scrub, dry tropical forest and wetlands. Minneriya also features a man-made tank that filters to the reservoir and feeds the park’s wildlife during the dry months.  

Mammals found in Minneriya include deer, purple-faced langur and macaque monkeys, sloth bears and about 20 leopards, plus there is a wonderful range of migratory and indigenous birds throughout the park including the hanging parrot, brown-capped babbler and green bee-eater. However, the star attraction of the reserve is ‘The Gathering’; a spectacle where over 300 elephants congregate to the Minneriya reservoir as they search for water and fresh grass during the dry season (July – October). This wonderful event is the largest meeting of Asian elephants in the world.

Green bee eater at Sinharaja National Park Sri Lanka
Green Bee Eater

7. Wilpattu National Park

Situated in the dry lowlands the north west of Sri Lanka, Wilpattu is the country’s largest national park. In Sinhalese, Wilpattu translates as ‘natural lakes’ and you will find many glistening lakes dotted around the reserve. Due to low visitor numbers this national park emanates a real sense of wilderness and authenticity, however, the wildlife is slightly wary of visitors therefore sightings are less likely than in the more popular parks.

Nevertheless, Wilpattu National Park is a wonderful expedition and the promising fauna is some of the best Sri Lanka has to offer. Regal leopards prowl through the scrub, crocodiles bathe in the many lakes, deer roam and peafowl parade throughout the park. Other interesting wildlife that can be spotted include monitor lizards, tortoises, flycatchers and jungle fowl.

Tufted gray langur Wilpattu NP Sri Lanka
Tufted Grey Langur

8. Bundala National Park

The Bundala National Park stretches over 20km of Sri Lanka’s south coast enclosing five shallow lagoons. The reserve is home to a wide range of terrain including scrub jungle, salt pans, sand dunes and wetlands which allows for a rich diversity of wildlife. The park’s beaches play habitat to all five species of turtle who lay their eggs here.

Bundala is one of Sri Lanka’s finest places for birdwatching. Known for its incredible spectacles of migratory birds, the reserve’s lagoons also attract an amazing variety of aquatic birds. The pink greater flamingo is one of the park’s more famous visitors and huge flocks of flamingos migrate here from Northern India. Other aquatic birds include the pelican, ibis, painted stork and spoonbill. The beautiful peafowl can also be widely spotted as well as a range of endemic birds. In terms of other wildlife, visitors are likely to spot excited troops of grey langur monkeys, crocodiles sunning themselves and wild pigs foraging.

Peacock in Bundala National Park
Peacock in Bundala National Park / Image credit: Jan Arendtsz

9. Gal Oya National Park

Established in 1954, Sri Lanka’s forgotten national park is relatively untouched and little-visited, making it an authentic and more memorable experience. Sri Lanka consists of lush evergreen forest and open savannah that frames Senanayake Samudraya Lake, the country’s largest inland body of water, and is dotted with tiny islands. It is the only place in Sri Lanka where safaris can be conducted by boat, alternatively explore by foot or jeep.

Gal Oya National Park is often referred to as one of the best places in the world to see the Asian elephant in its natural habitat, and a highlight of the reserve is to watch these majestic creatures swim from island to island across Senanayake Samudraya Lake. The park is also home to over 150 different species of bird and in the middle of the lake lies Birds’ Island where exotic colonies of birds jostle for nesting space. Wild boar, deer, leopard, sloth bear and mugger crocodiles can also be seen at Gal Oya.

Mugger Crocodile in Gal Oya National Park
Mugger Crocodile / Image credit: Marsh Mugger

10. Kumana National Park

Neighbouring its much bigger and more famous brother, Yala National Park, this smaller and quieter reserve previously known as Yala East is a great place for birdwatching and safari trips. Kumana National Park sits on the south east coast of Sri Lanka and is made up of wetlands and dry tropical forest, all of which is supported by the 20 lagoons and tanks in the park.

Although the density of animals is lower than Yala, there is still a good chance of spotting elephants, crocodiles, wild buffalo and turtles. Leopards and about a dozen bears also reside here, however a sighting is very rare. One of Kumana’s best attractions is a 200-acre bird sanctuary that sits on a rich mangrove swamp. Watchtowers give visitors the chance to gain a fantastic view and lookout point for the very rare black-necked storks and other endemic rare birds.

Black backed jackal Bundala National Park Sri Lanka
Black Backed Jackal
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11. Mirissa's Coast

Mirissa, a small beach town on Sri Lanka’s south coast, is the number one hotspot for whale watching in the country. Witnessing whales breaching in the crashing waves is a rare encounter and nowhere is better to experience this in Sri Lanka than in Mirissa. Using a reputable and eco-friendly company, ride into the deep sea and come face-to-face with these fascinating creatures. You are likely to see blue whales, with the chance of also meeting sperm, fin and killer whales. May to October is the prime whale watching season.

During a whale watching trip you may also be lucky enough to see a variety of dolphins including bottlenose, common and spinner dolphins, and sometimes you will encounter mesmerising sea turtles bobbing along the shore.

Blue Whale Mirissa
Blue whale

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