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Sri Lanka's Wildlife

By Martha Hales

Many keen wildlife enthusiasts will know that Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see leopards in the wild, but did you know that it is also a great destination to go whale watching, see marine turtles nesting, witness huge herds of elephants, and look for 400 plus species of birds? Sri Lankan safari is also great value, giving you the opportunity to visit its national parks and reserves with the expertise of a guide to enhance your experience. On top of all that wonderful wildlife, Sri Lanka offers plenty of other reasons to get excited. Enjoy the multitude of beaches which encircle the island, take a leisurely trip into the scenic Hill Country to see the tea plantations, or delve into Sri Lanka’s fascinating history with a tour of the Cultural Triangle. Your trip can be whatever you want it to be, but we defy you not to feel curious about the creatures that call this teardrop island home. Here's the lowdown on Sri Lanka’s impressive fauna and where to look for it.

Elephants bathing in the river in Sri Lanka

Leopards in Yala National Park

Much of the buzz you will hear about Sri Lanka’s leopard population relates to Yala National Park, which boasts one of the highest densities of these big cats on earth. Sri Lankan leopards are apex predators, meaning they are not as shy as their foreign counterparts whose territory is challenged by other big cats. If you decide you can’t face competing with the crowds to catch sight of a leopard in Yala, there are smaller populations in Udawalawe, Kumana, Wilpattu and Sinharaja National Parks. Sightings in these reserves are not as common but they are always a possibility, and in the meantime you will have a much better sense of the wild, untouched Sri Lanka than you get at popular Yala.

A leopard lounges in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Elephants in Minneriya

Despite the declining numbers of elephants in Sri Lanka, they are among the easiest wild animals to track down in the national parks they call home. Consider including the following destinations in your itinerary if you are hoping to see large numbers of elephants in the wild. Minneriya National Park hosts the largest known ‘gathering’ of elephants in Asia every August and September. They come from far and wide for the reliable water source at the Minneriya tank, a man made reservoir where they drink, play, swim and mingle at sundown, making for a memorable sight. Udawalawe National Park is another good bet to see herds of elephants lumbering through their habitat, it is home to several hundred making your chances of seeing them during your visit very high.

A baby elephant in Minneriya National Park, Sri Lanka

Turtles at Rekawa Beach

The majority of turtles in Sri Lanka are green turtles, but there are a total of five species of marine turtles present in the seas around the island - loggerhead, hawksbill, olive ridley and leatherback are the other four. Wild turtles appear on several beaches around the coast, usually during November to May, where they come ashore to nest. Rekawa Beach at Tangalle and Bundala National Park are good places to observe the nesting process, however nesting and hatching are usually nocturnal activities and a certain amount of luck and patience are required to see them. Many whale watching trips will also encounter turtles, and there are several areas of shore where turtles are known to live year round so you may see them when swimming or snorkelling. Remember not to get too close and not to touch them.

A turtle swims through the water in Sri Lanka

Birds in Sinharaja Forest Reserve

With more than 400 recorded species including 33 endemics, Sri Lanka is a superb birding destination. The varied climate, habitats and topography of the island determines the prevalence of types of birds in each area. The wet zone in the south west coincides with the hilly areas most densely covered in rainforest, home to some of the best birdwatching sites. Sinharaja Forest Reserve is one of the best places to look for endemics, while the Minneriya reservoir - part of the National Park - is a haven for waterfowl including the spot-billed pelican, lesser adjutant and the painted stork. Yala’s position alongside the coast makes it another great birding destination with over 200 species recorded so far in the park.

A Sri Lanka blue magpie perches on a branch in Sinharaja National Park

Monkeys in Horton Plains National Park

Purple-faced leaf monkeys (also known as langurs) are endemic to Sri Lanka, and though they spend much of their time in the canopy of the dense tree cover in the southwest of the island, they can be tracked by their calls. They can often be heard before they are seen in the moist woodlands of the Sinharaja Forest Reserve National Park and Horton Plains National Park. Other primates to look out for are the toque macaque and the red slender loris. Yala National Park, Minneriya National Park and Polonnaruwa are good places to look for these species.

Landscape view of Horton Plains National Park, Sri Lanka

Whales & Dolphins in Mirissa and Trincomalee

Marine mammals are often found a short way from the south and east coasts of Sri Lanka, an easy boat ride from the shore. The whale species most commonly sighted are blue whales, fin whales and sperm whales, though there are other species present at times. Dolphins are also commonly seen on whale watching trips, with spinner dolphins and bottlenose dolphins being the most numerous. Many companies around Mirissa and Trincomalee offer whale watching trips, and between the months of November to April they come across whales on 95% of excursions, rescheduling any unsuccessful trips for free. Sri Lanka has particularly rich waters which support an array of marine mammals so it's a great place to go in search of them.

Sperm whales off the coast of Sri Lanka

Make it happen

Sri Lanka is a fantastic wildlife destination and the diversity of flora and fauna ensures you have lots to fit in to your trip. Expert local knowledge is the key to creating an extra special experience, so send a few details of your requirements to our friendly Sri Lankan partners and they will work their magic. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office please call +44 (0)117 325 7898.