A utopia for nature: Sri Lanka’s rich and diverse wildlife
Sri Lanka boasts an extraordinary array of unique habitats, distinct national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, along with many informal wildlife-watching opportunities, both inland and offshore. Whether you're camping in a luxury safari tent ready for a dawn trip to see elephants, or simply standing on the shore looking out for whales, there are many exciting ways to encounter Sri Lanka’s diverse wildlife, however you prefer to travel.
Every trip to this tantalising island offers opportunities to encounter superstar species such as elephants, leopards and whales, but Sri Lanka’s wildlife goes far beyond the famous names, encompassing a dizzying array of creatures great and small in every corner of this diverse island.
Best places to visit in Sri Lanka for wildlife
Yala National Park - home to the densest population of leopards in the world, as well as elephants, sloth bears, pangolins, deer, monkeys, crocodiles, cobras, white buffalo, sea turtles and over 130 bird species. Yala West is the place for leopards, while Yala East is a little quieter and has fewer visitors. The Kumana Bird Sanctuary is regarded as one of the most important breeding grounds in the country with over 250 recorded species including pelicans, storks, spoonbills, plovers, sandpipers and cormorants.
Wilpattu National Park - Sri Lanka’s largest national park, varied forest terrain great for guided jeep safaris. Home to over 30 species of mammal including leopards, elephants, spotted deer and a dense population of Sri Lankan sloth bears. There are turtles and crocodiles in the wetland ‘villus’ as wellas wetland bird species such as the Pin Tail, Whistling Teal Spoonbill, and White Ibis.
Uda Walawe National Park - a man-made sanctuary, home to around 500 elephants, alongside water buffalo, water monitor lizards, sambar deer, monkeys, a few leopards, and many species of bird. Head to the Elephant Transit Home to learn how orphaned elephants are cared for before being released back into their natural habitat.
Bundala National Park and bird sanctuary, near Tangalle - just west of Yala, and off the usual tourist trail, Bundala is a small national park with wider wetland areas. Around 100 species of waterbird can be found here, including huge flocks of Greater Flamingo, Black-headed Storks and Oriental White Ibis. Four sea-turtle species lay their eggs on Bundala’s beaches each year.
Udawatta Kele Forest Reserve, near Kandy - the forest reserve of Udawatta Kele was once declared a ‘forbidden forest’ by the Sinhala Kings, with only members of royalty permitted to visit. Now open to all, it’s a great birding spot, home to over 80 species including the Layard’s Parakeet and Sri Lankan Hanging Parrot. It’s also home to toque macaque monkeys, several civet species, slender loris, porcupines, giant squirrels, pangolins, bats and flying foxes.
Minneriya National Park - 24 species of mammal live within this park, including around 200 elephants. It’s the location for the extraordinary annual ‘Elephant Gathering’, where the park reservoir draws herds of up to 300 elephants during the August and September dry season. The park’s other residents include sambar and spotted deer, leopards (though sightings here are rare), sloth bears, toque monkey, water monitor lizards, swamp crocodiles and over 160 species of bird.
Sinharaja Forest Reserve - a dense lowland rainforest reserve in southern Sri Lanka, home to hundreds of bird species, including the Orange-billed Babbler, Green-billed Coucal and Sri Lanka Blue Magpie. There are many smaller mammals, including purple-faced langur monkeys, civets, mongoose, wild cats and slender loris, as well as thousands of butterflies and insects. The high density of birds in a relatively small area has led to an extraordinary phenomenon, where several different species flock together to hunt.
Around the coast - go whale and dolphin watching off the southern beaches around Mirissa, and around the west coast from Bentota to Kalpitaya, between November and April, and from the east coast between April and September. Offshore from Trincomalee, large shoals of plankton bring many cetacean species within spotting distance, including blue, pilot, false killer, Bryde’s and sperm whales, as well as orca and dolphin. If you're eager to dive or snorkel, many more creatures can be seen around the coast below the waves, from sea turtles, squid, rays and barracudas, to clownfish and nudibranchs.
Gal Oya National Park - if you’re looking to find your wildlife watching thrills somewhere ‘off piste’, the Gal Oya is a treasure trove away from the usual trail. Travel across the park’s reservoirs by boat, stopping to the wealth of birdlife on Kurulu Dupatha, and, if you’re lucky, seeing some of the park’s elephants swimming between the islands.
What wildlife can we see in Sri Lanka?
Slinking through the flickering grassland, or weaving under dappled forest shade, the Sri Lankan leopards prowl majestically through their territory. Catching glimpses of their sinuous forms as they move through their natural habitat is thrilling. Though they remain fairly elusive creatures, with the skills of an experienced guide there’s a good chance of a sighting out on safari. Stay overnight in a safari camp on the outskirts of a national park, and be out at first light to find the leopards before they retreat from the heat of the day.
In addition to the leopards, Sri Lanka is home to several other, less elusive wild cat species, which closely resemble the humble domestic kitty! The fishing cat firmly disproves the cliche that cats dislike water, and can be found swimming in waterways hunting for aquatic prey, while the slightly smaller jungle cat prowls stealthily through low grassland. The island’s smallest wild cat, the rusty-spotted cat, lives across the island, but you’ll be lucky to see one as they’re excellent at staying hidden.
Civets, mongoose and slender loris
Most Sri Lankans will have crossed paths with a civet at one time or another, and the honey-toned golden palm civet is one of Sri Lanka’s most distinctive endemic mammals. Though now, sadly, classified as ‘vulnerable’, their sleek, sunlight catching forms can be seen scurrying through the treetops in forested regions of the country. The eagle-eyed might also spot mongoose and slender loris peeping out from the same dense vegetation.
The largest recognised subspecies of the Asian elephant, the Sri Lankan elephant is - alongside the leopard - one of the country’s most famous animals. Encounters with these epic creatures as they amble through pristine, protected parkland can be extraordinarily rewarding, and bring many wildlife enthusiasts to Sri Lanka’s shores every year. Learn how orphaned elephants are cared for and rehabilitated in Uda Walawe, head out on safari drives with experienced guides to watch the elephants from a safe and respectful distance, and visit in August or September to witness the extraordinary ‘elephant gathering’ in Minneriya National Park.
Sri Lanka’s birdlife is elaborate and varied, ranging from ground-dwelling fowl to waterbirds, both endemic and migratory. Thanks to its tropical southern location and varied terrain, over 500 species of bird have been recorded within its shores. Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl (which look very similar to small farm hens and roosters) scuffle and scratch for insects on forest floors; small groups of Grey Hornbills perch their gracefully curved bodies on overhead branches; and the distinctive scarlet masks of the endemic Red-faced Malkoha flash between the leaves.
Another of Sri Lanka’s ‘Big Four’, the sloth bear’s rounded figure can be seen shuffling through national park undergrowth foraging for insects, nuts, berries and roots. Their slow, ambling gait, long fur and facial markings are reminiscent of sloths, hence the name, though the species are not related. The Sri Lankan sloth bear is a specific, smaller subspecies, but has similarly distinctive shaggy black fur and white snout. Though they’re quite small, they can be vicious, so don’t get too close!
Whales, dolphins and turtles
Many ocean giants stir the deep ocean waters around Sri Lanka’s shores, including humpback, minke, Bryde’s and sperm whales, and the legendarily-huge blue whales. Pods of various dolphins including spinner, bottlenose, risso and Indo-Pacific species dance gently through the rolling waves. As well as cetaceans, Sri lanka’s waters are prime spots for hawksbill, leatherback, and green sea turtles. They come ashore to lay their eggs on the sandy beaches, and once hatched, hundreds of baby turtles make the treacherous journey back across the sand to the sea. At certain times of year, access to specific beaches may be restricted to ensure the turtles’ safety.
Monkeys and squirrels
Many species of monkeys leap through the treetops in Sri Lanka’s protected forests, including the endemic, elfin-eared toque macaque and purple-faced langur. The macaques especially sometimes roam around temples and near the edges of urban areas, making sightings there fairly common. While wandering, keep a keen look out for the tufted tails of grizzled giant squirrels (yes, ‘grizzled’ is their proper name!) scampering overhead too!
If crocodiles float your wildlife boat, the riverways and lakes in Sri Lanka’s National Parks are some of the best places in Asia to see freshwater-dwelling mugger crocodiles, who occasionally hunt unwitting sambal and spotted deer who wander too near to the water’s edge (though, to be honest, they mostly stick to fish!).
A note on welfare…
Animal welfare is an absolute priority for us, and we are passionate about only supporting projects that put high standards of animal wellbeing first. You can read about our wildlife policies here.