Sri Lanka is the ideal destination for those wanting it all from their holiday. Pristine beaches, rugged coastline, hot weather, fantastic food, rich culture, ancient history, and of course wildlife. So what is the best safari in Sri Lanka?
There is something for everyone on this interesting island. There are a number of national parks to contemplate when choosing where to go on safari. Whilst you must consider the location, and how it will fit with the rest of your holiday. This article will take a look at what each park has to offer. So that you can decide which is the best safari in Sri Lanka for you. Make sure you read this post before confirming any plans as it contains useful info for any safari holiday.
Yala is one of the largest national parks in Sri Lanka and was first designated in 1938. It claims to have the highest density of wild leopards in the world. In block 1 of the park, it is reported to have 1 leopard per square kilometre. Yala is home to 44 species of mammals and 214 species of birds. Other interesting animals that can be found are crocodiles, peacocks, sloth bears, sambar & spotted deer, jackals, toque macaques, and of course elephants, however, the elephant population varies seasonally. Yala is the most popular park in Sri Lanka, with 600 jeeps entering the park each day.
Whilst Yala will likely give you the best chance of seeing a leopard in Sri Lanka, you will probably be joined by other jeeps as they jostle for the best angle. The animals in Yala seem quite used to the safari jeeps, making it easier to photograph them. I can see why many people think that Yala is the best safari in Sri Lanka. I enjoyed my safari drives in Yala and was fortunate to see a number of leopards, and a sloth bear. However, I feel like there were far too many jeeps in the park.
Located close to Yala on the south coast of Sri Lanka, Bundala is a peaceful national park. In 2005 it was designated as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO. 32 species of mammal and 197 species of bird can be found at the park. The national park is largely made up of wetlands, with many water buffalo and crocodiles. You may also see tortoises, monitor lizards, pythons, and flamingoes (at the right time of year). It is very unlikely that you will see a leopard in Bundala.
However, there are some wild elephants that live in the park. They do stray from the park and you will see that the local farmers on the outskirts of the park have to sleep in tree houses above their crops. I loved the afternoon I spent in Bundala, beautiful scenery and plenty of wildlife to see. We were very fortunate to see a small herd of wild elephants with an infant.
The best thing about Bundala is that we did not see another jeep for the whole 3 hours we were there.
Located just 165 km from Colombo, Udawalawe is Sri Lanka’s third most visited national park. The park is mostly grassland and has a resident herd of about 250 elephants. Leopards and sloth bears can also be seen in the park but are quite rare. There are approximately 184 species of bird that inhabit the park, although some are migratory.
Udawalawe also has the Elephant Transit Home. Established in 1995 with the focus of rehabilitating orphaned calves so that they can be released back into the wild. There are a number of feeding times during the day, 0600, 0900, 1200, 1500, 1800. This is for people to observe and not to get close to the elephants, and seems ethical. Udawalawe is a great option if you are primarily looking for elephants.
The less-visited Gal Oya is located 315 km from Columbo. It is the main catchment area for the biggest reservoir in Sri Lanka, Senanayake Samudraya. This national park has a resident elephant herd that can be seen year-round. There are 32 mammal species and 150 bird species at the park. This includes leopards, wild boar, and axis deer.
Gal Oya is home to the Vedda people, also known as the forest dwellers who are descendants of the aboriginal people of Sri Lanka. You can organise a walk with the Vedda people. It is also possible to do boat safaris in Gal Oya, which can be a great alternative to jeep safaris. In my opinion, this is certainly a contender for the best safari in Sri Lanka.
Designated as a national park in 1997, Minneriya is most famous for two things, the elephant population and the Minneriya Tank. The tank is a reservoir built by King Mahasen in the third century. It has a surface area of almost 19 square kilometres. The tank helps to sustain a large herd of between 150 – 200 elephants, who enjoy feeding on the surrounding grasslands.
Minneriya is easily accessible from the Cultural Triangle, which makes it very popular for tourists wanting to see some elephants after a morning of sightseeing. This means that like Yala, there can be a large number of jeeps surrounding the elephants.
Whilst a total of 24 mammal species including leopards and sloth bears reside in the park, it is very difficult to see them. 160 species of birds can be found in Minneriya, and it is an important area for water-dwelling birds. This is a great place to see elephants, however, if you are familiar with safaris in Africa, then you will find it a bit busy.
Horton Plains national park is an area rich in biodiversity with many endemic species. At about 2300 metres, it is the highest plateau in Sri Lanka. There are 32 species of mammal that can be found in the park. There is a large population of up to 2000 samba deer in the park, this is the main source of food for the leopards that also live here. Elephants are not thought to live in the park, although in 2010 the critically endangered slender loris was found and photographed in the park.
Horton Plains is very popular with hikers, most of whom will visit World’s End, a sheer cliff with a 1200 metre drop. Baker’s Falls is another popular attraction, a waterfall with a 20-metre drop. Whilst it is definitely worth visiting this beautiful place, those wanting to see larger mammals should consider one of the other national parks listed. Birders are sure to enjoy the 87 species found in the park.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a UNESCO world heritage site and biosphere reserve. It is the last area of viable primary rain forest in Sri Lanka. It is a small area of just 88 square kilometres. The dense vegetation makes it difficult to see much wildlife. Whilst there are leopards, and elephants in the park it is extremely unlikely that you will see them. There is a large population of the endemic purple-faced langur.
Sinharaja translates to the Lion Kingdom, although there are unfortunately no lions to be found in Sri Lanka! Again Sinharaja is most popular for hikers wanting to enjoy some of Sri Lanka’s rain forest. If you are wanting to visit make sure you wear sensible footwear, as vipers and leeches can be found there.
Wilpattu is my favourite national park in Sri Lanka. It was founded in 1938 but was closed between 1988 – 2003 due to the civil war. The park is 1317 square kilometres making it larger than Yala national park, however, only 25% of the park is open to visitors. Wilpattu boasts one of the best leopard populations in the world. The park has 31 species of mammal, and many birds too. In one-afternoon game drive I saw a leopard, sloth bear, sambar deer, spotted deer, water buffalo, mongoose, crocodiles and much more including a sole elephant.
My favourite thing about Wilpattu was that we only saw another 3 jeeps while we were in the park. It was much more like an African safari. There are options to stay within the park, but it is also possible to do an afternoon safari and return to a hotel in the cultural triangle. Wilpattu has a unique feature, natural lakes aka willus are natural depressions that fill with rainwater, the perfect place to spot a leopard! In my opinion, Wilpattu is the best safari in Sri Lanka.
Safaris in Sri Lanka are generally very different from those in Africa, with many national parks not having rules on how many jeeps can surround an animal at one time. It is important to research the company that you decide to go with. For those who suffer from back problems it might not be the best option for you, as many drivers will race around the park hoping to spot a leopard, this will involve bouncing around in an uncomfortable vehicle for hours. If there is a specific animal that you really want to see, then choose the most suitable park for that animal. Remember to read my Top 10 Safari Tips. My recommendation for anyone that has been on safari before in Africa, consider the less-visited parks in Sri Lanka.