One of the biggest draws to Sri Lanka for me was it’s impressive, natural rolling hills and abundant variation of wildlife. Sri Lanka is one of the best destinations in the world to see animals in their natural habitat, one of the many reasons that Sri Lanka nabbed the top spot for Lonely Planet’s best countries to visit in 2019!
This little oasis in the middle of the Indian Ocean is quite literally teeming with wildlife. Sri Lanka has it’s own version of ‘The Big Five’; when you visit you want to look out for leopards, elephants, sloth bears, blue whales and sperm whales. It also boasts over 400 different species of birds.
You don’t even need to go to national parks to see these animals. On our first day we travelled to Trincomalee and our driver, Pradeep, saw a small group of elephants grazing next to the bushes at the edge of the road and he stopped for us to gawk at them. Then the group strode through an elephant corridor in the bush and crossed the road right behind our car!
We were completely amazed that we’d only been in Sri Lanka for about 7 hours and we’d already seen wild elephants!
Sri Lanka is home to a staggering 26 national parks so you’re at no loss for discovering some wildlife. I only visited one national park during my 10 days in Sri Lanka (god, I wish I had stayed longer) and I saw plenty of wildlife both inside and equally as much outside the national park.
Where to visit in Sri Lanka to see wildlife
I. Kaudulla National Park
We started off our trip by visiting Kaudulla National Park and seeing the famous Sri Lankan elephants. Elephants were the animal David and I were most looking forward to finding.
Kaudulla was declared a national park in 2002, 16 years ago. Despite this, Kaudulla National Park is relatively new to visiting tourists. It is one of the less frequented national parks, which is nice because there aren’t Jeeps everywhere and It actually feels like you’re on a safari!
On the route into Kaudulla National Park you must drive down a winding, uneven and construction-laden road. Our driver arranged for the safari guide to meet us in the jeep and take us into the park because his car would be ruined trying to get us to the entrance! As you follow the road into the Park, there are construction workers (and normal people) everywhere trying to improve the road to make it more accessible. I imagine this is because they expect Kaudulla National Park to become more popular as tourism in Sri Lanka increases.
We booked our safari whilst still in the UK, through Lakpura, and I can thoroughly recommend them. We had the jeep to ourselves and our driver stopped whenever we asked or whenever he spotted wildlife. He even stopped for a good half hour at the end so I could take hundreds of photos of a male elephant.
We visited in mid-September, which is a good time to go because upwards of 300 elephants migrate there during this month. Unfortunately, we were a week or two late for the huge migration but we did see about 25-30 elephants which is still more than I bargained on seeing.
As well as elephants we also saw an owl (in the daytime!) that even opened his eyes and stared long enough for me to capture him!
Lots of different species of eagles
Monkey’s. Funny story here – David told me he was taking pictures of the monkey’s with my Canon but he was really focusing on the branches they were hidden behind. Voila, reveal some blurry monkey, mostly bush, photographs! I don’t know why I trusted him to use a technical camera when he can barely control his iPhone but lesson learned!
Most of the elephant’s we saw were around the lake in the Park. But on our way out of the park, we had our own private viewing with a male elephant that we got really close to and stayed with (alone) for at least half an hour.
II. Whale watching in Trincomalee
Whale watching with Sail Lanka
Not only in Sri Lanka are you able to experience an amazing land safari but you can also take to the sea in search of blue whales, sperm whales and even killer whales sometimes. The oceans around Sri Lanka benefit highly from large whale gatherings, so at various points around the island, you may be lucky enough to see these huge mammals breach the waves and disappear into the vast ocean.
We decided to visit Trincomalee and also tie in a whale watching trip because our timing coincided with potential sightings in this region. We were at the tail end of sighting season in Trincomalee and the ocean was extremely rough for a period of that day so unfortunately we missed seeing whales.
The experience was still amazing, though. We saw a huge pod of dolphins as soon as we sailed deeper and they followed along under our vessel.
Not to mention that we had an entire yacht to ourselves(!!) because we were luckily the only people that booked onto the trip that day.
Normally a private yacht trip would cost around $750-1000 but we paid $125 each for a 7 hour trip.
Despite this, Sail Lanka were extremely hospitable and took us out anyway, giving us their complete undivided attention.
David even managed to wangle sailing us back to the shoreline. A half hour stint that he throughly enjoyed, as you can see…
He’s hiding a Lion beer somewhere. Wouldn’t want anyone thinking he’s drink driving.
The Sail Lanka team on the Sapphire that day were excellent.
It was lovely to sit on the top deck with them and hear all about how much they enjoyed working for Sail Lanka, about their lives and the history of the island.
They topped off the day by hailing over some local fishermen that were catching tuna for the markets.
They asked if we wanted some fresh tuna cooked for lunch and the answer was, of course, yes please!
So they grilled us a fresh tuna each and also let us try some of the spicy Sri Lankan tuna they made for themselves which was delicious and very spicy!!
You cannot beat tuna that was literally just caught from the sea! I can honestly say that I’ve never had or tasted fresh fish like it.
I cannot wait to go back and spot the whales next time. Thank you Sail Lanka and the team on the Sapphire!
Kandy town is full of wildlife just wandering around you.
You’ve got families of monkeys trailing along electricity lines above your head
Monkeys on roads, gates, roofs, everywhere!
Strolling around Kandy Lake you can also find lots of wildlife
Here’s a monitor lizard that slithered out of the lake to eat a dead crow!
This was equally the most revolting yet amazing spectacle I’ve ever witnessed. It actually felt like I was watching a wildlife documentary on tv. We were luckily in the right place at the right (or wrong!) time.
I don’t know if monitor lizards are active at night but ever since that I was extremely careful where I was stepping after dark!
We also saw Pelicans drifting in the lake. This one conveniently turned before I could get a face on picture.
There is also a hidden nature reserve within Kandy called Udawattakele Forest Reserve. You can see lots of birds and butterflies within this peaceful sanctuary. A butterfly even fluttered by and perched on David’s hand!
Apparently there’s also small deer, slender loris, various types of palm civets, boar, porcupine, bats and lots of snakes, which I was extremely happy we did not encounter, in the reserve.
Oh, and we also saw more monkeys! I was a bit gutted by the lack of monkeys we had seen until we arrived in Kandy and they were everywhere.
IV. Other wildlife
Unfortunately on this trip I didn’t spot an elusive leopard. Apparently, the best place for sightings is in Yala National Park in the dry season, June-August, because they have the highest concentration.
I also didn’t spot a sloth bear on this trip, which can also be found most commonly in Yala or Wilpattu.
However, bear in mind that Yala National Park is the most touristy national park in the whole of Sri Lanka. So while you might see the wildlife I missed, this is at the cost of probably having to share your jeep with other group(s) and the park is likely to be littered with a lot of jeeps.
VI. Experience wildlife all year round
It doesn’t matter what time of year you wish to visit Sri Lanka because the island benefits from having split seasons for different regions.
During May-September, the South and West of Sri Lanka has its monsoon season. Dry season in this area is between December-March.
During October-January, the North and East has its monsoon season with the dry season being between May-September.
We visited the North and East during September and the weather was beautiful every single day. However, when we left, the following week there were thunderstorms for most of the week, showing the start of the change in seasons.
Lonely Planet’s guidebook on Sri Lanka is good for identifying the areas to visit during the dry season and also tells you where you have the best opportunity to spot wildlife, based on migration habits and seasonal changes. This is particularly good for finding a national park with an abundance of elephants.
Getting around Sri Lanka
One of the hardest parts for us was deciding on a way of travelling to all the wildlife destinations we planned to visit. We decided to hire a driver for the 10 days we were there.
One of the even more difficult things was trying to find a reliable driver! I eventually found one through Lonely Planet Thorn Tree forum. A special mention to our driver, Pradeep, who was highly accommodating to our already planned route. He was able to suggest other places to go and stopped along the way to destinations to show us things we hadn’t already planned. He also ensured we were well fed and watered, made many pitstops on some long journeys and introduced us to typical Sri Lankan food and drink. If anyone would like his details, please message me.