Top 5 National Parks in Sri Lanka

For a small island, Sri Lanka has a substantial number of national parks (26, to be exact). The country is predominantly Buddhist, hence harmonious coexistence was encouraged since ancient times. A special place was (still is) given for animals in history, culture, and religion. But, where can you see Sri Lanka’s marvelous creatures?

Here are the top wildlife sanctuaries to witness Sri Lanka’s best species.

Sinharaja Forest Reserve

Located in South West Sri Lanka, the Sinharaja Forest is not only a Biodiversity Hotspot, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site (the country has 8 UNESCO sites). This tropical rainforest has a high amount of endemic species, especially birds. Out of the 34 endemic birds in Sri Lanka, 29 can be found here. The forest is also home to other animals (even elephants and leopards), but it’s more favorable for birders.

Sinharaja Forest Canopy

Noteworthy animals: the ‘Blue Magpie’ – a colorful endemic bird that’s quite common but rare in other parts of the country. Then there’s the elusive ‘Serendib Scops Owl’ – the latest bird to be discovered in Sri Lanka, but quite hard to see. Make sure to hire a decent guide beforehand!

Best time to visit: January/February till March – the driest periods. The rest of the months are peppered with occasional showers, with heavy rainfall from May to July and November to January.

Media: Watch this video to learn more about Sinharaja.

Yala National Park

Located near the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Yala is the country’s most famous national park. It has the highest density of leopards in the world, with one leopard per square kilometer. The park is also home to other mammals such as elephants and sloth bears. There’s also quite a number of bird species, so its fauna is well-rounded.

Yala National Park

Noteworthy animals: Leopards! Yala is actually a leopard haven; the park is demarcated into five ‘Blocks’, with ‘Block I’ harboring one leopard per square kilometer – which is the highest leopard density in the world! So the chances of seeing a leopard on safari is very high. Another animal of note is the Sloth Bear, a shaggy creature with a furry coat that looks harmless, but is quite dangerous.

Best time to visit: The park closes in September for a month, during the peak of the dry season. So make sure to plan your visit from May-August, that way you’d see Sloth Bears too; as the best chance to see it is in May when ‘Palu’ fruits (sweet produce favored by bears) come into season. Leopards are found year-round, but again in the dry season, chances are higher since they break cover to drink from waterholes.

Media: Watch this video to learn more about Sri Lankan Leopards.

Wilpattu National Park

Located in North East Sri Lanka, Wilpattu National Park is the biggest and the oldest wildlife sanctuary in the country. Alas, it was mostly closed to the public during the Civil War when the place was occupied by terrorists and land mines – these mines were subsequently cleared and the park was open to the public after the war in 2009. Just like Yala, the fauna is well-rounded: leopards, elephants, wild boar, deer are some of the species found in this massive park. One notable attribute of this park are ‘villus’, or natural lakes that fill up with rainwater to sustain its wildlife.

A ‘Villu’, natural lake at Wilpattu NP

Noteworthy animals: Leopards are found here too, but unlike Yala they are quite spread out, so you might go hours (maybe days) without seeing one. But when you do, more often than not sightings last a long time, which is great news for wildlife photographers. Reportedly, there are around 70 leopards in the park, but this is just an estimate. Sloth Bears are also present, and just like Yala, they venture out prominently during the ‘Palu’ season.

Leopard on a tree at Wilpattu NP

Best time to visit: Akin to Yala, the best time is in the dry season from May to August.

Media: Watch this video to learn more about Wilpattu National Park.

Udawalawe National Park

Located in the south central sector, Udawalawe National Park is the best place to see wild Asian Elephants all year round. There are other animals too – like deer, boar, wild buffalo, and even leopard sightings have been reported, including rare sightings of small cats such as fishing cats and jungle cats. The park also houses the ‘Elephant Transfer Home’, an elephant orphanage established by the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Here, orphaned calves and juveniles are cared for until they are fit enough to be released into the wild.

Udawalawe National Park

Noteworthy animals: Elephants! Wild Asian Elephants can be seen throughout the year. Around 500 elephants inhabit the park, roaming in herds up to 100, with no seasonal variation in numbers.

An Asian Elephant at Udawalawe NP

Best time to visit: Of course, elephants are present all year round, but the best time is in the dry season when large herds of elephants approach waterholes to bathe and drink.

Media: Watch this video to learn more about Sri Lankan Elephants.

Minneriya National Park

The central attraction of this park – located in the North Central Province – is the Minneriya reservoir, built by an ancient king in the 3rd century. This tank, which fills up during the monsoon, dries up in the dry season revealing fertile grass… which is ideal for migrating elephants who gather in numbers to feed, sometimes numbering up to 300! This annual ‘Gathering’ is considered as one of the greatest wildlife spectacles in the world. During peak months (August, September) very large herds congregate to socialize, feed and bathe. You might even catch a glimpse of cute baby elephants, often seen playing around – but don’t get too close, their guardians (females) are fiercely protective!

The Minneriya Tank

Noteworthy animals: enough said about pachyderms!

The Elephant ‘Gathering’ at Minneriya NP

Best time to visit: During the dry season, but from July to October when the ‘gathering’ is in full swing.