June 4, 2019
For many travellers, a wildlife experience is a must do during a tour of Sri Lanka. The country’s national parks have a lot to offer in terms of the range of activities in or around the park, as well as the impressive array of wildlife to see.
The better-known national parks in Sri Lanka such as Yala, Udawalave and Wilpattu are facing a surge in visitor numbers, so expect to see a lot of jeeps in those parks during a safari. So what are the other options if you want to have the best wildlife safari in Sri Lanka? What can you expect to see and experiences at the lesser-known national parks in Sri Lanka. (And where are they!?)
Getting good information about Sri Lanka’s least-visited national parks is hard. Most other tour operators can provide you with information about the popular parks such as Yala or Wilpattu, yet there’s little knowledge of places such as Gal Oya or Kumana. Our expert team of Sri Lanka travel planners includes wildlife experts who have worked for many years in this particular area.
If you are a wildlife enthusiast or want to explore some of Sri Lanka’s natural beauty away from the main tourist trail, here are some travel tips and information to help you get the most from your wildlife experience during a tour of Sri Lanka, based on our first-hand experience. We recommend that you visit at least one of the national parks we have listed below for an authentic wildlife experiences. In doing so you also contribute as a responsible traveller. We have also found some wonderful experiences that you may not find easily, those that can be shared only through experience.
In our newest suggested itinerary Wild Sri Lanka you will find several of these unique experiences and destinations incorporated into a 20-day tour of Sri Lanka. We can also design a custom-made private tour of Sri Lanka which includes any of the national parks or wildlife experiences listed below.
This Sri Lanka travel blog features tips on which national parks to visit in Sri Lanka and what you can expect to see and do there.
First, here are 7 reasons why you should visit at least one of Sri Lanka’s lesser-visited national parks
- You will almost always have very private wildlife experience. You will neither be hassled by over-crowding, jeeps chasing each other to get a better view of a sleeping leopard nor be in a rush to tick boxes.
- Your experience is so private that you may be forced to leave the lounging big cat (elusive Sri Lankan leopard) rather than chasing him.
- There is so much diversity in Sri Lanka’s national parks – you’ll be amazed by what you’ll discover. In addition, they are almost untouched territory.
- The infrastructure is good in these parks, the roads are comfortable and safe: certainly, enjoyable for travelling with children in Sri Lanka.
- Your accommodation: Unlike around the more popular parks there is not a huge array on offer in terms of hotels. However, there are few unique, interesting, comfortable-to-upmarket accommodation options available: suitable for individuals as well as families. Most of these accommodation providers are wildlife tourism experts and keen to provide a unique and sustainable wildlife experience.
- These National Parks can be easily incorporated to your regular travel itinerary
- Exceptionally interesting for children and educational too.
4 lesser-known national parks of Sri Lanka to visit
While there are several more national parks in Sri Lanka, these are the four lesser-known ones that meet our expectations and what we recommend for our clients.
1. Gal Oya National Park.
Gal Oya National Park, Sri Lanka was established in 1954 and serves as the main catchment area for Senanayake Samudraya, Sri Lanka’s largest reservoir. The 25,900-hectare National Park has a beautiful setting – a little more than 50% consists of evergreen forest and the balance largely by savannah creating a contrast in landscape. It has three mountains: Danigala, Nilagala and Ulpotha on the borders making it even more beautiful.
Gal Oya is home to about 32 species of mammals including Sri Lankan leopard, Sloth bear, Sri Lankan Elephants, wild boar, spotted deer, water buffalo, Grey langur and the toque monkeys. The Senanayake reservoir consists of many small rocky islands, unique in appearance plus home to close upon 150 recorded species of bird species. (Please note though, you are unlikely to see a leopard at Gal Oya.)
Ruins of pagodas and other buildings that date back to 2nd century BC is another feature of the park. One of the surrounding villages, Rathugama is the home to Sri Lanka’s indigenous tribe, ‘Rathugama Veddhas’, making this a place of such diversity.
What can you expect to see at Gal Oya National Park?
- Swimming Elephants – The Senanayake Reservoir is dotted with rocky islands creating a beautiful platform for Elephants to swim from one to another. The best times to view is in the early morning hours by boat, or at dusk. So, a boat safari is a must on the agenda.
- Jeep Safari at the Gal Oya National Park – Game drive through evergreen forests and savannahs that are home to herds of elephants is extraordinary. Watch in silence as they come to drink feed. What more you may find a lonely male looking for a mate. Sightings of leopards and sloth bears are rare as they remain quite shy. You may hear alarm calls and a roar if you are lucky, however there are many other species of mammals, birds that makes your game drive so rewarding.
- A walk in the bush – A walk in the bush is a unique experience where you have the option to meet, experience and observe the way of life of Sri Lanka’s indigenous people, the Veddha community of Rathugama.
How do I get to Gal Oya National Park in Sri Lanka? (Travel times by vehicle):
Sigiriya – 4 hours : Dambulla – 3 hours and 30 minutes : Kandy – 3 hours and 30 minutes: Polonnaruwa – 3 hours: Nuwara Eliya – 3 hours and 30 minutes: Ella – 3 hours
Gal Oy National Park features in our Wildlife of Sri Lanka suggested itinerary. At Gal Oya, our favourite place to stay is Gal Oya Lodge.
2. Kumana National Park
Arguably one of the most amazing National Park in Sri Lanka with great bio diversity. Being furthest away from Colombo Kumana National Park is not every one’s choice. It stands alone and remains less explored. Originally Kumana was referred to as Yala East National park as it sits next to the most visited sibling. 20 plus lagoons and tanks are major contributors to a diversity of birdlife including wading and water species. Kumana bird sanctuary was declared as a protected Bird sanctuary in 1938 and caters to a vast array of migrant birds and act as an important breeding ground. While open bill, glossy ibis, purple heron, great egret patronize the large ponds rare birds such as red-faced malkoha and black necked stork make Kumana their residence. At Kumana there are also a number of ancient cave inscriptions dating back to 1st and 2nd centuries B.C. The park is popular with Hindu devotees who cross the park annually by foot to the temple in Kataragama.
Which national parks in Sri Lanka can I see leopards?
Sightings of the leopard and elephants are very good and what more extremely private at Kumana National Park.
What can you expect to see and do Kumana National Park in Sri Lanka?
- Excellent overall sightings – As we mentioned before Kuman is such a diverse park with lagoons and tanks, and dry forest patches making the Game drives exceptionally good. In two game drives you can almost see everything.
- Almost private sightings – The beauty of Kumana National Park is its geographical isolation, at least in terms of reaching it. This means that those visitors that do make the effort to go there will be rewarded with up close and personal, almost always private, wildlife sightings. The times we visited, we had simply amazing sightings of leopards. Three sightings in two safaris where one sighting was more than half an hour – we just sat in the jeep and watched this amazing creature, sleep, yawn and sleep again! Eventually we had to leave him in his bliss in order to see more of the park. This is not uncommon at Kumana, as animals remain comfortable in their own territory with little or no disturbances.
- Ancient scripts, caves – A number of ancient scripts, ruins and caves with signs of civilizations that existed 1st and 2nd century BC are found in Kumana National Park. You will hear many legendary stories about these places from your guide. Despite that, the most exciting aspect is that you can step in and walk to most of them. We climbed the rocks (an easy climb) and little steps to view some of these ruins.
- Places of worship- Old small places of worship remain part of this mystery park. While some of them are on the boundaries of the park others remain inside. It is interesting to see some locals travel many miles to visit and worship the gods in these places of worship with great faith and belief on healing and grant of special wishes by the gods.
How do I get to Kumana National Park in Sri Lanka? (Travel times by vehicle):
Arugumbay – 2 hours: Gal Oya – 4 hours: Bandarawela – 5 hours and 30 minutes: Ella – 5 hours
3. Maduru Oya National Park
Beyond Wasgamuwa National Park, lies Maduru Oya National Park, situated in the eastern province of Sri Lanka. The park’s 58,800 hectares is home to wildlife, ancient ruins and a secluded community. While the Park finds itself in the dry zone, water systems here make up about 15% of the land area – including five reservoirs in addition to tributaries of the Mahaweli and Maduru Oya rivers – making the park rich in biodiversity with numerous endemic species.
Maduru Oya is best known for its huge herds of elephants. Apart from elephants it is also home to sloth bear, leopard, water buffalo, toque monkey, spotted deer, sambar, porcupine, Indian muntjac, jackal, fishing cat, wild boar, and several other smaller animals. This park is one of the recorded habitats of the grey slender loris while the European otter has also been reported here.
On the other hand, avifauna is also very varied and beautiful to see. The white-bellied sea eagle, great cormorant, the painted stork, the black-hooded oriole, woodpecker, and Sri Lanka’s national bird, the jungle fowl, and the malkoha, amongst others, make their presence around the reservoirs making the park a birders paradise, The water bodies also encourage water monitor, common monitor, estuarine and mugger crocodiles to reside in the park.
As in some of Sri Lanka’s other national parks, constructs built in different eras of the island’s ancient past still stand and evoke a majestic and imperial past.
The Maduru Oya National Park is a drive of about 300 kilometres from Colombo therefore not easily reached. (Click here for facts about Sri Lanka.)
What can I expect to see and at Maduru Oya National Park in Sri Lanka?
- Large herds of majestic elephants – You will find that very often these giant creatures are hidden amongst the tall grass and may surprise you! Since visitors do not frequently patronize the park, they are likely to be curious, but also somewhat hesitant in front of human kind. If you stay inside the park in tented camp you will be amazed by how close these majestic animals can be viewed. What’s more you may enjoy simply sitting down with a beer in hand and watch the baby elephants soaking in the mud meters away.
- Bird watching in Maduru Oya National Park – Maduru Oya is probably one of those idealistic residences for birds of all kinds due to the fact it is surrounded by several water bodies thus ensuring great breeding grounds and amble food. It is really the home to endemic birds including Sri Lanka Grey Horn Bill, Sri Lanka’s small Barbet, Red-Faced Malkoha to name a few.
- Ancient Ruins – One of the most amazing things about this park is that you can get as close as you can to the ruins of the old sluice gate built by ancient Nagha community of Sri Lanka around 600 BC. The sluice is made up of stone slabs and bricks, is about 9.1m high and 67 m long. You can sit by the ruins and enjoy a picnic breakfast in complete privacy while rest of the world stand still.
- Isolated communities – As much as the park, communities around Maduru Oya too are isolated. Meeting these people gives you a non- commercial real-life insight to the lives around. They do not act, nor do they want to project an impression on a tourist. These are two of the communities you can see at Maduru Ora:
Veddha (Indigenous) community of Madura Oya
If you have the time on arrival at Madura Oya, go on a short bush walk with the Vedda community, the indigenous people of Henanigala. The Chief himself is a common man, traditionally clad as he would do in the community. He smiles through his aged teeth at visitors and acknowledges with a warm greeting of holding both hands – the traditional Veddha greeting. Relocated to this area from their original land, the community engages in agriculture: paddy and slash and burn cultivation. The younger generation prefer to engage in inland fishing.
The lost Fishermen’s Village
Deep inside the Maduru Oya National Park, a little village with around 25 families exists. They live in complete harmony inside the forest and fish daily in the nearby reservoir. A number of sails of adorn the shores in varied pastel hues. The day’s catch is a wonderful array including fresh water lobsters and many other lake fish. If you take a morning jeep safari in the park and time it right you can see the fishermen return to the shores. This is one of those unspoilt experiences worth travelling far to witness the everyday lives of unique communities.
How do I get to Madura Oya National Park in Sri Lanka? (Travel times by vehicle):
Gal Oya – 1 hour: Kandy – 4 hours: Polonnaruwa – 3 hours: Dambulla – 3 hours and 15 minutes: Sigiriya – 3 hours and 15 minutes: Bandarawela – 3 hours and 15 minutes: Nuwara Eliya – 3 hours and 30 minutes: Ella – 3 hours
Where can you go in Sri Lanka for a wildlife experience away from the crowds and increase you chance of seeing animals in their natural habitat?
4. Wasgamuwa National Park
Wasgamuwa is a beautiful and picturesque park with a mix of evergreen forests and dry bushland. It is home to the Big 3 – leopards, sloth bears and elephants – as well as a huge array of birds who dance and roam around the park’s marshy wetlands. This includes birds that are found in the wetlands, such as Purple Swamphen, Purple Heron, Woolly-Necked Stork and Lesser Adjutant. The taller trees are home to Black-winged Kites, Green Pigeon, Drongo Cuckoos, Blue-faced Malkoha while Jackerbin Cuckoos hide behind the scrublands. The grasslands become playing and mating fields for peacocks that try hard to convince their eligibility to flocks of peahens carelessly ignore their advances. Flocks of Munias, Bee eaters and Weaver birds fly across the grasslands in the late afternoons as well as in the mornings as if there were no care in the world.
Another mammoth resident of the Wasgamuwa National Park is the Sri Lankan Elephant, who is considered slightly larger in size and aggressive in behaviour in comparison to Sri Lankan Elephants found in other National parks.
The leopards in the Wasgamuwa National Park are shy and do not fancy facing visitors. Catching a quick glimpse is what you may get. The park is famous as a Sloth bear habitat. You will see many signs of bear activities including scratch marks on tree barks and broken termite nests.
Wasgamuwa National Park is 225 kilometres from Colombo and easily accessible if you are visiting the cultural triangle in Sri Lanka.
What can I expect to see and experience at Wasgamuwa National Park in Sri Lanka?t can
To us Wasgamuwa National Park is more than your average park. It is a place where you want to relax, sit back on your safari jeep, bring the engine to a halt and take in the naturally beautiful landscape. The flora and the composition of the park consist of evergreen forests and dry bushy shrubs.
1. Paradise for twitchers – Wasgamuwa National park is a bird lovers paradise. The park attracts a large array of endemic bird species and sightings of them are not hard. It is also the temporary home to the migrant birds between November and April every year. During a recent visit we saw a large flock of Blue Tail Bee eaters who made the park their temporary home perching on sticky bushes.
2. Giant Elephant Herds – The park is famous for larger Elephants than what you mostly get in other parks. Must say they can get quite aggressive especially the lonesome males wondering around. They are great sight to see.
3. Elusive bears and shy leopards – Wasgamuwa National Park is known to have a high density of Sloth bears. The word Wasgamuwa is coined from ‘Walas – Gamuwa’, the village of the Bears however there is really no guarantee of seeing them in every safari. The leopards are really shy here and tend to head bush every time they hear the sound of a jeep. So, seeing them is somewhat rare nevertheless possible.
4. Photography options – Due to the diverse setting of the forests and the large number of bird species Wasgamuwa National park is a photographer’s dream.
How do I get to Wasgamuwa National Park in Sri Lanka? (Travel times by vehicle):
Gal Oya – 2 hours and 30 minutes: Kandy – 3 hours and 30 minutes: Polonnaruwa – 2 hours 15 minutes: Dambulla – 1 hour and 30 minutes: Sigiriya – 2 hours: Bandarawela – 3 hours and 15 minutes: Nuwara Eliya – 4 hours: Ella – 3 hours
If you are a wildlife enthusiast, or want to travel in Sri Lanka with your family and see parts of its natural beauty away from the crowds, we hope you find this information useful. We can create a private tour of Sri Lanka for you that includes as much or as little wildlife as you want. To speak to one of our travel planners about a custom made itinerary contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
You may also like to read our other Sri Lanka travel blogs, including:
Top 10 places to visit in Sri Lanka in 2019
6 of the best luxury hotels in Sri Lanka to splurge on
A guide to eating in Sri Lanka: 13 foods worth travelling to Sri Lanka to eat