National park safaris in Sri Lanka

Just a quarter of the size of the UK, Sri Lanka has managed to pack in 22 strikingly green national parks across the island, where visitors can experience some of the best wildlife encounters in Asia.

Respect for the natural environment is ingrained in the locals’ consciousness as a result of traditional Buddhist concern for all forms of life, but also due to the important role of eco-tourism and it’s worth to the island’s economy.

Yala National Park

Yala National Park is one of the most visited and famous parks in Sri Lanka. Located in the southeast, it boasts areas of lowland dry scrub with rocky outcrops and is edged by a long stretch of coastline.

Home to 44 different varieties of mammals and 215 bird species, here you can expect to spot sambar, spotted deer, buffalo, wild pigs, monkeys and golden jackals. Alongside these exciting creatures you’ll find magnificent Sri Lankan elephants and the world’s largest concentration of leopards, which are fairly bold for this normally secretive cat.

Bundala National Park

A quiet alternative to Yala, Bundala National Park is a must visit for avid bird watchers. Home to thousands of colourful birds, you’ll find around 200 endemic and migrating species as well as populations of elephants, langur monkeys, and turtles.

Open year round, navigate around the maze of waterways and lagoons which host ibis, pelicans, painted storks and egrets. You can even watch enormous crocodiles bask along the water’s edge. In winter, huge flocks of greater flamingos arrive, with up to 2000 being recorded at one time. December through to March is also the peak time to spot migrating birds from Siberia and India.

Uda Walawe National Park

For the ultimate elephant encounter, head to Uda Walawe National Park in the south, which rivals even the best African savannahs. The surrounding mountains are blanketed in tea plantations and provide a beautiful backdrop to the stretches of grassland and scrub jungle, home to around 500 wild elephants.

Observe whole families splashing in the water with their young and traversing the grassy plains from the safety of your 4×4 as you keep your eyes peeled for elusive leopards. Bird enthusiasts will be in their element as the park is also one of the best places in Sri Lanka to spot raptors alongside Sri Lankan junglefowl, egrets and green bee-eaters.

Horton Plains National Park

Towering 2,000 metres above sea level in the central highlands of Sri Lanka, Horton Plains is the highest plateau on the island. Otherwise known as World’s End, due to the parks stunning 880 metre sheer drop, you’ll be met with jaw-dropping panoramic views of the tea plantations below and southern coastline. For the best chance to catch these vistas, arrive before 10am.

As the only national park in Sri Lanka that allows visitors to walk freely, visitors can traverse through spectacular cloud forests, wild grasslands, majestic waterfalls and rocky outcrops, spotting wild deer, boar and giant squirrels.

Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks

Within half an hour’s drive of each other in the North Central Province of the island, you’ll find these two national parks. They are located around two large reservoirs boasting an unusually wide range of habitat types, from dry tropical forest to wetlands and grasslands.

First opened in 2002, Kaudulla is Sri Lanka’s newest park and provides a corridor to around 300 elephants who migrate seasonally between the two parks. Visit in August and September to witness the largest meeting of Asian elephants in the world, as hundreds of these gentle giants congregate around Minneriya Lake.

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