23 October 2018
With its spots, long tail and lean, powerful body – there are few more impressive sights than a leopard in the wild.
The Sri Lankan leopard is king of the national park and a beast many travel to Sri Lanka for just a glimpse of.
But where can you see a leopard in Sri Lanka and which national park should you visit for the best chance to see the elusive big cat?
Sri Lanka’s national parks are home to more than just leopards – you’ll find sloth bears, crocodiles, hundreds of bird species, wild elephants and monkeys to name just a few.
We have taken a safari at most national parks in Sri Lanka. Have we seen a leopard – yes we have. Have we seen the sloth bear – yes, we’ve been fortunate enough to see that too. But we’ve also seen wonderful birds, wild elephants and at places, simply just enjoyed being in the park and the natural environment.
So which is the best place to take a wildlife safari in Sri Lanka?
Keep in mind – a safari in any country is all just luck. There’s no guarantee ever of a sighting (especially if you are hoping to see a leopard) and safaris take patience and are best approached with few expectations.
With all that in mind, here is some information about the national parks of Sri Lanka to help you decide which is the best park to include in your Sri Lanka holiday.
National parks of Sri Lanka – here are the options:
#1) Wilpattu National Park
Wilpattu is the largest national park in Sri Lanka, and is located roughly about 3.5 hours north of Colombo’s international airport by road. Wilpattu has a forested landscape and its unique feature is the large number of waterholes doted throughout the park. Wilpattu is regarded as one of the best parks in Sri Lanka to spot leopards, though it is home to a diverse range of other wildlife, including the highly threatened Sri Lankan sloth bear, Sri Lankan elephant, spotted deer, water buffalo, sambar and mongoose. A number of wetland bird species are found here including garganey, pintail, whistling teal, spoonbill, white ibis, large white egret, cattle egret and purple heron. In addition, many species of terns, gulls, owls, buzzards, kites and eagles are easily spotted. The endemic Sri Lanka jungle fowl, little cormorant and painted stork can also be seen on safari.
For wildlife enthusiasts one of the advantages of including Wilpattu National Park in your tour of Sri Lanka is that the park offers all day safaris. (Other national parks of Sri Lanka tend to split them into morning and afternoon safari sessions.) And while sitting in an open-aired jeep all day may not appeal to everyone, if you want to maximise your safaris and are a passionate wildlife fan – this is a great way to see as much wildlife as you can during your time in Sri Lanka. Wilpattu is less crowded than the more popular Yala, so with fewer jeeps you tend to have a better (and quieter) wildlife experience. Wilpattu is a good safari option if you are visiting Sri Lanka’s cultural triangle (Anuradhapura is close to Wilpattu) or heading to the north of Sri Lanka. Wilpattu is included on day 4 of our suggested itinerary I Need a Tropical Holiday itinerary. For a real wildlife experience, we can include a stay at Kulu Safaris tented camp at Wilpattu.
#2) Yala National Park
Yala is Sri Lanka’s most visited national park, luring visitors with its prevalence of leopards. Yala has one of the highest densities of leopards in the world. The scenery at the park is striking – with its rocky outcrops that add some depth and perspective to the park landscape – especially if you are lucky enough to see a leopard perched on one of these rocky outcrops.
Given its leopard numbers, Yala tends to attract the most number of visitors. Indeed some entrances can get very busy and local holidays and peak tourist season see the park crowded. At these times expect to be among many jeeps searching for leopards.
However, due to the popularity of Yala it means there are a lot of hotels, tented camps and places to stay near the national park – ranging from luxury tented camps in Yala to family friendly hotels – which means there’s an option for all budgets and group sizes – be it large families travelling together in Sri Lanka or couples of a private tour.
This incredible image you see here of two leopards mating – was taken at Yala National Park by Joseph Rabar in June 2018. Joseph shot this photo while on one of the safaris during our small group tour Splendour In Sri Lanka 2018. This tour, run by our Remarkable East brand, will depart again in June 2019. Don’t miss your chance to spot leopards with us – contact us today to find out more about Splendour in Sri Lanka 2019. (This image is copyright Joseph Rabar and may not be used, reproduced or taken from this site in any form or at any time. )
#3) Gal Oya National Park
Gal Oya could possibly be our favourite national park in Sri Lanka. Why? Because for now, it’s one of Sri Lanka’s hidden gems. Gal Oya is the country’s least-visited park, which means no crowds and authentic wildlife experiences. Gal Oya is harder to reach than other national parks and not on the main circular route most tours of Sri Lanka follow; therefore you won’t find it in many itineraries or group tours of Sri Lanka. And you won’t see a leopard at Gal Oya – so that again deters people. What you can expect though from Gal Oya – is a gentle safari, a true wildlife experience and passionate and enthusiastic expert naturalists.
Gal Oya is the only national park in Sri Lanka where you can safari by boat. The park centres around a huge tank, or reservoir, and safaris are conducted for several hours morning and night. What you might see are wild elephants drinking at the water’s edge, birdlife, crocodiles, monkeys and more. If you’ve ever taken a jeep safari before you know they can be quite dusty and bumpy. Compared to that, the boat safari at Gal Oya is gentle, relaxing and a really pleasant experience. Even if you don’t have much luck on the day spotting wildlife, the boat ride is very enjoyable. Added to that, there are limited accommodation options at Gal Oya. The only lodge near the park is Gal Oya Lodge – an outstanding eco property led by an enthusiastic team of wildlife experts and naturalist who will introduce you to the local area and wildlife in a sincere, informed and gentle manner. The lodge serves amazing meals and has an inviting pool – so you can easily spend a few days here immersing yourself in the local wildlife experiences and relaxing. Stay in free standing bungalows set amid the tall, savannah type grasses.
A visit to Gal Oya Lodge is included in our Insights of Sri Lanka hosted group tour and also features in Sri Lankan Discovery – a group tour of Sri Lanka designed by and for women travellers.
#4) Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe fits nicely into a tour of Sri Lanka – you can stop here if you are coming from the cooler hill stations – places like Ella or Nuwara Eliya – on your way down to the south coast of Sri Lanka – to either a beach stay, a private villa stay on Sri Lanka’s south coast or to Matara or Galle. Udawalawe is best known for its large elephant populations, attracting visitors who want to see these giant beasts in the wild. Given the elephant numbers at the park, this can be a good option for families as you have improved chances of elephant sightings in the park and are less likely to have disappointed children at the end of a 4-hour jeep safari! Udawalawe is also good for bird watching.
#5) Minneriya National Park
Minneriya draws visitors because of its large number of wild elephants. See these giant creatures up close, as the animals circle the Minneriya tank. This is often a highlight for visitors – especially for family travel in Sri Lanka – as again, there is less chance of disappointment at Minneriya with generally a good chance to see groups of elephants. Children love to see these incredible beasts up close and in groups. Minneriya is also home to birdlife such as painted stalks, pelicans and cormorants among other wildlife.
You can easily visit Minneriya one afternoon when you are staying near Sigiriya. If you like to stay in one place for several days and take day or half day trips (and therefore cut out the hassle of packing and moving each day) finding a good hotel near Sigiriya for multiple nights and exploring nearby sights may be worth considering. From a hotel near Sigiriya you can visit Lion Rock, also known as Sigiriya Rock Fortress, one morning. You can take a jeep safari one afternoon to Minneriya and also visit the lesser-visited ruins of the Ritigala Archeological site. Dambulla Cave Temples, Polonnaruwa and the ancient kingdom of Anuradhapura can also be visited as day trips from a base near Sigiriya. So what is the best place to stay near Sigiriya?
Some of the luxury hotels we recommend:
Ulagalla – by UGA Escapes. This spacious eco-resort is a standout in the area. Spread over a large property, guest stay in individual villas set among the lush tropical environment and rice paddies. Some rooms have private plunge pools. With its large main swimming pool (said to be the biggest in Sri Lanka) you can easily stay here 3 nights – exploring Sigiriya and the nearby sights in the mornings and relaxing by the pool in the afternoon. Ulagalla also offers spa treatments, activities such as horse riding and private dining in special locations.
Vil Uyana – Another fabulous property that has maximized its beautiful surroundings, Vil Uyana is luxury eco resort situated in the shadow of Sigiriya Rock Fortress. The resort offers private villas set among rice paddies, creating a feel of elegant, rural simplicity. Some villas have private plunge pools, and there’s also a main infinity pool. The villas are spacious and rustic, set in the picturesque surroundings.
#6) Bundala National Park
For bird watchers, Bundala is the park to visit. A wonderful maze of waterways, lagoons and dunes, Bundala National park is an internationally important wetland sanctuary. It shelters some 150 species of birds, many journeying from Siberia and the Rann of Kutch in India to winter here (arriving between August and April). It is also the winter home to the greater flamingo – up to 2,000 have been recorded here at one time. The park also contains a number of animals including elephants, leopards, civets, giant squirrels and many crocodiles.
If you are passionate about animals and the natural environment and want the best Sri Lankan wildlife experiences, our suggested private tour itinerary Wildlife of Sri Lanka may be the wildlife tour of Sri Lanka that suits you. This 17-day tour will take you to Wilpattu, Gal Oya and Yala National Parks and also includes some of the country’s top cultural attractions.
We can also include one or more wildlife safari and nation park visit in Sri Lanka is a custom made private tour designed specifically for you.
You may also like to read our other Sri Lanka travel blogs:
16 Things You Should Know About Sri Lanka
Top Beaches of Sri Lanka