A Guide to Sri Lanka's wildlife
Published on: November 28th, 2018
Last modified: July 28th, 2023
The island nation of Sri Lanka may be small, but there is a wealth of wildlife that calls it home.
Whether it’s leopard spotting in Yala National Park, watching herds of elephants in Gal Oya National Park or swimming with turtles off the country’s shores, there are plenty of exciting animal encounters to be had in Sri Lanka. Here is our guide to Sri Lanka’s wildlife.
Sri Lanka is famous for its elephants. To see these animals where they truly belong – in the wild – head to Gal Oya National Park or Minneriya National Park. Gal Oya National Park is one of Sri Lanka’s least visited national parks but one of the best places in the country to see Asian elephants. This remote park is centred around the expansive Senanayake Samudra reservoir and is a place of beautiful landscapes and vibrant wildlife. Swathes of evergreen forest sit alongside stretches of savannah, making it one of the most beautiful places in the world to see elephants.
Elephants can be spotted roaming the park, or swimming between islets in the country’s largest lake – the same way their ancestors used to 60 years ago, when the water here first rose. Other animals residing here include Sri Lankan leopards, langurs, toque macaques, sloth bears, wild boars, mugger crocodiles, water buffalos, deer and some 150 bird species.
For an impressive elephant spectacle, head to Minneriya National Park for the annual ‘Gathering.’ A unique phenomenon that takes place during the dry season (from May to October), this is the largest assembling of Asian elephants at any given time across the world. Herds from all over the North Central Province head here to enjoy the fresh green grass and bathe in waters surrounded by wetlands, grasslands and scrub jungle. Other wildlife to be spotted here include langurs, macaques, buffalos, deer, crocodiles, leopards and sloth bears.
Sri Lanka’s most popular national park, Yala National Park, is home to the highest concentration of leopards in the world. Their elusive nature means spotting the country’s top predator is still a challenge, but with a skilled guide on hand, you have have a chance to find them. There are few places in the world that offer a better chance of spotting these enigmatic cats than Yala National Park.
The park itself is divided into five blocks, two of which (Ruhana and Kumana) can be explored on guided game drives. The grand park stretches from the sea inland over 979 square kilometres (378 square miles), and has a varied landscape of forest, wetlands and savannah. The best time to visit for your chance of seeing a leopard is between May to October. During this dry season, the bush dries out and animals congregate in the open around waterholes.
On Sri Lanka’s south coast, Tangalle is a place of meandering rugged cliffs and beautiful sandy bays. Protected by a vast enclosing reef, the waters surrounding Tangalle are a great place to get up close and personal to the wonderful marine life. The turquoise waters are extremely suited to surfing, diving and whale watching. As you swim through the ocean, you might even find yourself face to face with Green, Loggerhead, Leatherback, Olive Ridley and Hawksbill turtles. Be sure to visit between November and March, as the seas are considered unsafe for swimming outside of these respective months.
A haven for wildlife, the private Vil Uyana nature reserve in the Cultural Triangle is made up of wetlands and forest habitats. This reserve contains the country’s best site for loris watching – with large bulging eyes and tiny limbs, the loris is a nocturnal primate found in India, Sri Lanka and across South East Asia. Hidden in scrub forests, these small animals move slowly through the trees after dusk to feed on insects and berries. At Vil Uyana, guests have the rare opportunity of spotting the Grey Slender Loris – one of the island’s most elusive primates.
On a one hour tour from the Vil Uyana lodge, the resident naturalist takes guests through the forest on a trail that passes through streams and bamboo bridges. You’ll walk wearing red light-emitting headlamps, which afford you close up views of the loris without disturbing them. Travellers may also encounter other nocturnal species on this after-dark adventure, such as Eurasian otters, mouse deer, Palm civets, collared Scops owls, Indian nightjars and fishing cats.
Made famous by the Disney’s Monkey Kingdom Movie, the ancient city of Polonnaruwa is home to a vast monkey population. Purple-faced leaf monkeys, toque macaques and grey langurs all live among the impressively preserved 8th century ruins. To get an insight into the lives and social structures of these primates, visit the Smithsonian Primate Research Centre. This organisation has been conducting conservation and scientific research in the area for almost 50 years, and the researchers here are extremely knowledgeable guides.