Sri Lanka’s National Parks

David Pettitt

Sri Lanka is best known for its captivating cultural riches including Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa, historic cities such as Galle and Kandy and fabulous golden beaches that sweep the length and breadth of this tropical isle. Yet, despite its pocket size, Sri Lanka is also home to a quite extraordinary collection of national parks which, when combined, make this island nation one of the most staggeringly diverse places on the planet.

Yala National Park

Established as a protected area in 1938, Yala is a large reserve with a mixture of habitats ranging from open parkland and dense jungle to flooded lagoons and high coastal sand dunes. This varied terrain supports a wide range of animal life and naturalists believe Yala is home to the highest concentration of leopards in the world. Other animals here include sambar, spotted deer, wild boar, jackal, sloth bear and crocodile. Birdlife is also abundant with over 130 species recorded.

Sri lankan leopard walking across a forest track

Wilpattu National Park

Sri Lanka’s oldest wildlife reserve, Wilpattu covers a vast area stretching from the coastal shoreline between Portugal and Dutch bays to the hilly, densely forested interior. There is excellent birding in Wilpattu with both resident and migrant species, whilst larger mammals include elephant, sloth bear, deer, water buffalo, mongoose and the evasive leopard. Coastal regions support the little seen dugong and there is a healthy reptile population including monitor lizard and mugger crocodile.

Black backed jackal in Sri Lanka

Udawalawe National Park

Mainly open parkland, altitudes at Udawalawe range from 100m above sea level on the plains to nearly 400m at its highest point. The park is most famous for its elephants which can be seen in herds of over one hundred attracted, as they are, by the grasslands and fresh-water Udawalawe tank. Udawalawe is also home to spotted deer, sambar, barking deer, wild boar, water buffalo and jackal whilst the birding is also excellent with nearly 200 species recorded.

Elephants in a national park in Sri Lanka

Pigeon Island National Park

Less well known than the main reserves, Pigeon Island is one of only two marine national parks in Sri Lanka. Comprising of two small islands located north of Trincomalee on Sri Lanka’s little-visited east coast, the park gets its name from the Blue Rock Pigeon – a native endangered bird that resides here. Declared a sanctuary in 1963 and made a national park 40 years later, Pigeon Island has one of the country’s finest sections of coral reef and is an ideal location for scuba diving and snorkelling.

Pigeon Island Trincomalee Sri Lanka

Lahugala National Park

First a sanctuary and now a national park, Lahugala is one of the smallest reserves in Sri Lanka. The land here is generally flat and the park houses three large tanks which draw in a wide variety of animal and birdlife making it a popular birding destination. Aside from elephant, Lahugala is home to the endemic toque macaque and various species of deer whilst birdlife includes pelican, purple heron and painted stork, white bellied sea eagle, grey headed fishing eagle and kingfisher.

Tufted gray langur in Sri Lanka