Deciding where to safari in Sri Lanka is a matter of choosing between the busier national parks or going the distance to visit a remote park with less competition. You’ve got an excellent chance of seeing wild elephants in many of Sri Lanka’s national parks, and with a little luck, you could even spot a leopard!
Safaris in Sri Lanka usually last three to four hours and can be booked as half-day or full-day excursions. When booking a half-day tour, you’ll have to tell your guide if you prefer morning or evening. Your best chance of seeing wildlife is with a morning trip, as animals are much less active in Sri Lanka’s scorching afternoon heat. However, this does mean being at the entrance and ready to go when national parks open at 6 a.m.!
The rugged 4x4 vehicles used by safari companies usually hold up to six passengers. The sides of the vehicle are open, allowing maximum visibility in all directions. The air is nice, but you’ll also get sun, rain, and whatever else the national park throws your direction. Bring a hat, waterproof bag, and extra drinking water. Leave the flip-flops at the hotel and wear real shoes for scrambling around rocks. Take care not to drop anything! Even a peanut or fruit peel from your snack bag could cause ecological trouble.
As with any tour or safari, your experience largely depends on the mood, knowledge, and enthusiasm of your guide. A good guide will go out of their way to ensure you see as much as possible. Guides stay in radio contact with one another, racing clients around to places where leopards have been spotted. Unfortunately, crossing a leopard off the list has become what determines whether or not a safari in Sri Lanka was amazing or simply satisfactory.
With 378 square miles of area, Yala National Park is Sri Lanka’s second largest national park and also the most popular place to safari in Sri Lanka. Yala’s location in the very southern part of Sri Lanka (162 miles southeast of Colombo) puts it within easy proximity of many popular beaches, and three wildlife sanctuaries clustered nearby allow the animals to wander freely between the refuges.
An estimated 350 elephants roam Yala National Park, and the leopard population is thriving. Along with the land animals, 215 species of birds live in or pass through the park. The best time to visit Yala National Park is from June to September, as the Northeast Monsoon replenishes important water sources that become competitive during the dry season.
Yala National Park stays busy. Unfortunately, the popularity is taking a toll on animals and infrastructure. Along with an increasing number of international visitors, Yala attracts waves of pilgrims who come to pay homage at the religious ruins there.
Wilpattu National Park
Wilpattu is Sri Lanka’s largest national park; however, only around 25 percent of the 508 square miles is accessible to visitors. The other 75 percent provides sanctuary for many exciting species of wildlife, including leopards, elephants, and sloth bears. The animals had more than 15 years to prosper and propagate while the national park was closed due to Sri Lanka’s civil war and unrest.
Unlike most of the national parks in Sri Lanka, Wilpattu is located north of Colombo and is furthest from busy beaches such as Unawatuna. March and April are rainy, but they're good months for spotting abundant wildlife. The national park is driest from May to September, prompting animals to migrate in search of less competitive water sources.
Before you book a trip, be aware that many roads in the park are severely rutted. Due to the number of potholes, some eco-agencies that lead safaris in Wilpattu don’t recommend their adventures for pregnant women or people suffering from back problems.
Udawalawe National Park
Udawalawe is the third busiest national park in Sri Lanka. The central location in the south makes Udawalawe a good alternative for visitors who (justifiably) fear Yala National Park will be too busy. Around 119 square miles of grasslands and hill country host a sizable herd of Sri Lankan elephants that call the park home.
A large reservoir in the center of the national park keeps animals happy and provides a beautiful backdrop in photos. The water also attracts a multitude of birds, making Udawalawe National Park one of the best choices for birders armed with long lenses.
A Jeep booked for up to six people will cost around $35 for a half-day in Udawalawe National Park.
Wasgamuwa National Park
Wasgamuwa National Park is 152 square miles of refuge set roughly in the center of Sri Lanka’s interior. The cultural capital of Kandy is approximately one hour away from the park’s entrance, making Wasgamuwa an excellent choice for enjoying a safari in Sri Lanka. A few leopards and sloth bears live in the park but are rarely seen. Instead, visitors get to enjoy the herd of at least 150 elephants and scores of birds.
The ancient history of the area is an exciting bonus for visitors. Remnants of an 1,800-year-old temple complex, Buduruwayaya Archaeological Site, can be found here. A historic battle between two kings also took place more than 2,000 years ago within the confines of the modern-day park. Meanwhile, animals can be seen drinking from irrigation canals and stone tanks constructed in the 12th century AD.
The driest months at Wasgamuwa National Park are from July to September, while the best months for spotting elephants are between November and May.
Gal Oya National Park
Located 195 miles from Colombo, Gal Oya National Park was established as a national park in 1954. Elephants thrive in the 100-square-mile park thanks to the savannah grasslands and large reservoir that gets replenished by the Northeast Monsoon. Bird Island, situated in the reservoir, is an important nesting site for migratory birds.
Elephants, leopards and 30 other mammals call the national park home. Like many of Sri Lanka’s national parks, the area around Gal Oya has an exciting history. Dighavapi Stupa dates back to the 2nd century BC and is constructed on the spot where Gautama Buddha meditated on his third trip to Sri Lanka; as such, thousands of pilgrims visit the national park every year. The flora is exciting, too: Gal Oya National Park features rare plants used in Ayurvedic medicinal cures—be careful where you step!
Kaudulla National Park
Located in the northeast part of Sri Lanka two hours from Trincomalee, Kaudulla National Park is another great choice if you want to see elephants up close. An estimated 211 elephants come to enjoy the 3rd century AD irrigation tank there, especially between April and October when surrounding areas are driest.
Leopards, sloth bears, and peacocks are also favorite sightings on safaris in Kaudulla National Park. The wild water buffaloes living in the national park may not seem that exciting—but unlike their domesticated cousins, they’re designated on the IUCN Red List as “endangered,” the same status as Sri Lankan leopards.
Keep your eyes open for kingfishers and some of the other 160 species of birds that live in the national park. Hold on to your belongings in the Jeep while on the move—roads are rough!