Sri Lanka, a tear-shaped island in the Indian Ocean, boasts some of the highest rates of biological endemism in the world – meaning that 16 percent of its fauna and 23 percent of its flora are unique to the country.
It has an abundance of birdlife – more than 400 species – and has its very own ‘big five’: elephants, leopards, sloth bears, blue whales and sperm whales. It is also one of the few places where people can combine whale watching with land safari in the same day.
There are 26 state-owned national parks covering an area of 5,734 square kilometres (2,214 square miles), much of which is protected by the Sri Lankan Department of Wildlife Conservation. Culture Trip and On The Go Tours travel across Sri Lanka in search of the best safari.
Yala National Park
A six-hour drive southeast of Colombo, this is the country’s premier national park, sitting along a long stretch of coastline. Yala National Park is packed with wildlife and is the best place for spotting Sri Lankan leopards – the park hosts around 30 to 40 within its 130,000 hectares (321,236 acres). Sloth bears are frequently seen here, too.
Minneriya National Park
Minneriya is only a short drive from the majestic Sigiriya rock fortress, arguably the most popular tourist attraction in the country. Over 8,800 hectares (21,745 acres) are home to hundreds of Sri Lankan elephants that like to congregate around an old reservoir. The seasonal gathering of elephants takes place during September and October on the bed of the Minneriya Lake, which dries up during those months and is replaced with lush grassland.
Udawalawe National Park
Less crowded with safari Jeeps than Yala, Udawalawe is known as the best place in all of Asia for observing elephants in the wild, with around 400 of them calling it home. It also hosts the Elephant Transit, where abandoned or orphaned elephant calves are cared for and treated before being released back into the wild. Elephant sightings are almost guaranteed here, but keep an eye out for the endangered rusty-spotted cats as well.
Land, on-foot, boat and even sky safari options
While Jeep safaris remain the most popular way to get around, a walking safari – accompanied by a tracker and ranger – is another great way to get up close with the animals, and at a much slower pace. There are trails for different levels of difficulty, and tours are available from morning to late at night, so you can see more nocturnal creatures that hide during the day.
Another way to see wildlife in Sri Lanka is from a hot-air balloon. However, these are weather dependent and most tours only operate between December and March.
Gal Oya National Park is also worth considering. This lesser-known gem offers boat safaris and the opportunity to see the crocodiles that call Senanayake Samudraya, Sri Lanka’s largest reservoir, home. Here, it’s also possible to join the Veddas on a nature walk; the tribe is reputed to be descended from the indigenous population of the island. The tribespeople continue to follow their traditional way of farming and hunting with bows and arrows, and only a few hundred are left.
Experience safari all year around
There are two monsoon seasons in Sri Lanka. The southwestern monsoon occurs between May and September, while the northeastern rainy season occurs between October and January. With national parks scattered all over the island, there are excellent safari options throughout the year.
The best time to visit Yala in the southeast is between March and October when water levels are low and the animals approach the lakes to drink. The majestic Sinharaja Forest Reserve, on the other hand, is most accessible from August to September and from January to early April.