Sri Lanka National Park

Your adventure can really come to life in the national parks of Sri Lanka, home to some of the richest variety of wildlife in the world. The word safari conjures up vast African plains, but you can see a huge variety of wild animals on this island; leopards, elephants and monkeys all await you plus much, much more.

Sri Lanka has a proud history of conserving nature, with the world’s first reserve, Mihintale, created here more than 2,000 years ago. Now you’ll find 100 areas of protected land and 26 which have reached national park status. So, which do you choose to visit? You’ll see fascinating and beautiful creatures in all of them, but here’s our pick of the best parks Sri Lanka has to offer.

If you only have time to visit one safari, it’s best to decide which animals you most want to see, then pick your Sri Lankan National Park to suit.

If you want to see leopards, head to Yala National Park, which has the highest concentration in the world of these majestic cats. Or pick Wilpattu for its sloth bears, Bundala for birds, Udawalawe National Park for its elephants or the highlands of Horton Plains for its spectacular views.

You’ll see images of lions everywhere in Sri Lanka, from the country’s flag to the nickname of its cricket team, yet you can’t actually find any real ones on the island anymore. Instead, the leopard is the big cat you’ll want to snap (on camera, of course).

And if it’s leopards you’re after, pick Yala National Park. You’ll find up to 40 here, a pretty high number for these elusive and unfortunately endangered cats. It’s hard to count them as they’re shy creatures and tend to sleep in the daytime. Even when they’re right in front of you, their fiendishly clever camouflage may take an experienced guide to point them out, so you can imagine the excitement of a sighting. You might even be lucky enough to catch a family playing in the sun.

Amazing as they are, don’t forget to make time for all the other animals and birds in Yala. Keep your eyes peeled for crocodiles, deer, buffalo, monitor lizards, chameleons and peacocks, not to mention the stripe-necked and ruddy mongooses, toque monkey, golden jackal and Indian palm civet.

Yala is huge, covering almost 1,000 square km next to the ocean in the south east of the island and there’s plenty of places to stop and stroll along the golden beaches after you’ve seen all of its exotic animal inhabitants.

You’ll see why Yala is the most popular of the Sri Lanka National Parks. Get there early to be first in line for a dawn safari when the gates open at 6am, though sunset safaris are an alternative. It’s worth noting that the park closes for around six weeks each year from the beginning of September. That’s to conserve water at the height of the annual drought and to allow park officials to focus on the leopards during breeding season.

Elephants live all over the island, but you’re guaranteed to find the magnificent creatures in Udawalawe National Park, as there are up to 500 here. You’ll come across them lazily eating leaves by the side of the track or bathing in the watering holes. And you’ll find it captivating to watch the families interact, with all the females helping to look after the babies.

In the dry months of August to October, head to Minneriya park for a must-see spectacle called The Gathering. It’s an amazing sight when hundreds of elephants, the most ever recorded in any one place, meet at its large lake to seek out food and water.

If you fancy an alternative to jeep safaris and want to stretch your legs, then Horton Plains National Park is the park for you. There are excellent hiking trails here and it offers a chance to really get up close and personal with its beautiful surroundings. The friendly and knowledgeable guides take you up among the clouds of the central highlands, on a plateau 2,100m above sea level known as the Roof of the Island.

You’ll set off on a 9km circular nature trail through beautiful scenery and a misty landscape of lush grassland, waterfalls and cloud forest. The route’s dramatic highlight is a 1,000m vertical drop called World’s End, a perfect photo spot.

On Horton Plains you’re likely to spot deer, monkeys and langurs, rhino horn lizards, otters and wild boar or the exotically-named grizzled giant squirrel. If you’re very lucky you might even catch a glimpse of the very rare red slender loris, a quirky cute creature found only in the highlands of Sri Lanka and considered one of the world’s most endangered primates.

If you’re a bird watcher, there are a handful of parks which excel in sightings of the feathered variety. Bundala National Park has hundreds of species, especially water birds. Easy to spot are eagles, osprey, herons, kingfishers, cormorants and storks, plus the pretty blue-tailed bee-eater and spot-billed pelican. The park is particularly good for flocks of migratory birds including greater flamingos which fly here to spend the winter.

In Kumana National Park, you could well see changeable hawk eagles, painted and rare black-necked storks, egrets, godwits and ibis. Head for the handy watchtowers for the best views and bear in mind that May and June are top months to visit in nesting season. As one of the lesser visited reserves, holidaymakers love this sanctuary for its peace and quiet.

Wilpattu is another animal haven. It’s the largest national park on Sri Lanka but one of the least visited, so you can have a much more personal safari. You may find it harder to spot leopards among the trees, but you could be rewarded with a glimpse of the rare sloth bear. There may be as few as 500 of these insect-eating bears, which look just like Baloo in The Jungle Book, remaining. On the north west coast, Wilpattu is also where you can find water buffalo, snakes, crocodiles, buzzards and purple heron.

To get the most of a visit to any of the Sri Lanka National Parks, we recommend you take a jumper for chilly starts, binoculars, a camera with a long lens, water and a blow-up cushion for a smoother jeep ride. And make sure you use the restroom at the entrance to the parks as you won’t get chance once you enter the park.