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Sri Lanka Wildlife Safaris: Five Places Not to Miss

Safaris aren’t just for Africa anymore. The nature in Sri Lanka is just as varied and plentiful. Sri Lanka wildlife safaris cover iconic species such as elephants and leopards. But if you keep your eyes open, you can also see jackals, loris, wild buffalo, crocs and spotted deer. And those are just the land animals.

Build yourself the best safari in Sri Lanka with the following five parks and reserves and you are guarantees to see some astonishing wildlife.

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Elephant wildlife in Sri Lanka

A cranky male elephant thinking about charging

Read More: Plan your entire trip using this handy Sri Lanka travel guide, which includes practical tips and links to other blog information.

Your Sri Lanka Wildlife Safari

Birds & Elephants in Kaudulla National Park

Kaudulla and nearby Minneriya National Parks provide a migratory corridor for approximately 10% of Sri Lanka’s elephant population. Kaudulla is sited around a very large lake which also attracts migratory birds, sloths, deer, bear monkeys and small cats. The park is located right in the center of Sri Lanka’s golden triangle, so if you’re seeing the country’s cultural sites anyway, it is easy to add on a game drive.

Pro Tip: you don’t need to visit both Kaudulla and Minneryia because the elephant population moves between the parks. Just ask the safari provider or tour guide which park is best for the time that you are visiting.

Read More: Check out some of Sri Lanka’s amazing UNESCO cultural sites and to round out your itinerary.

Bear Monkey Kaudulla National Park on Sri Lanka Safaru

Spotting a Bear Monkey on the Kaudulla Sri Lanka safari

(click on the pics below to view a full sized slideshow)

Elephants, Peacocks & Jackals in Udawalawe National Park

Udawalawe is located about two hours drive south of the Nuwara Eliya and Ella tea growing areas. The park was established in 1972 and is known for having large herds of elephants. We also spotted a lot of buffalo, jackals, peacocks and parrots and other native Sri Lankan wildlife.  The landscape is grassland rather than forest, making the animals very easy to spot, especially along the reservoir.

You can also visit the Elephant Transit Center which is only fifteen minutes from the park. The Transit Center cares for injured and orphaned elephants. The center provides food and medical care for the animals. Their goal is to prepare the elephants for a re-introduction into the wild.

Pro Tip: Carefully time your visit to the transit center. You’ll want to go during feeding time but the center doesn’t have a website, so ask your hotel to check the times for you or get the contact info from Trip Advisor.

Read More: Check out these luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. They are each conveniently located near one of these national parks.

Jackal in Udawalawe Sri Lanka wildlife

Jackal spotted on our Udawalawe Sri Lanka safari

Leopards & Elephants in Yala National Park

Yala is the crown jewel of wildlife parks and one of the most popular spots for a Sri Lanka wildlife safari. Yala was born in 1938 during the British Colonial period. It is home to over 44 mammal and 215 bird species but everyone goes for the leopards. It has the largest concentration of them in the country.

But beware, the leopards are nocturnal creatures and aren’t always willing to put on a show for the tourists. We did see a leopard when we were there, but finding it was like playing Where’s Waldo. And once spotted, we had to queue up with other jeeps to get a peek at the animal.

Pro Tip: Try to leave some space in your itinerary for multiple game drives into Yala. That way, if you don’t see a leopard on your first time out, you can try again later. There are plenty of other animals to make your wildlife safari an eye-opener.

Read More: Get inspired for your trip with these books set in Sri Lanka

Leopard butt in Yala on Sri Lanka wildlife safari

Elusive leopard sending a message about our intrusion into its space

Read More: If you love wild cats, check out this piece on a conservation program saving Fishing Cats in Colombo.

Dolphins & Whales in Marissa

Sri Lankan wildlife lives in the sea as well as on land. Their waters boast blue, sperm and fin whales along with Risso’s, common, bottlenose, striped and spinner dolphins. The whales and dolphins migrate seasonally between the eastern and western sides of the island. But if you visit between December and April, you can go out on a whale watch from Marissa. It’s located about 2-1/2 hours west of Yala or an hour south of Galle. Whales make me cry, and if they make you cry as well, you really should make time for them in your Sri Lanka wilflife safari.

Pro Tip: You can either get onto one of the larger tour boats, such as Whale Watching Marissa or Marriott Cruise, or you can hire out a smaller panga. The larger boats are more stable but more crowded. The smaller boats are more nimble but more puke-inducing. You can check out your options and book your whale watch on Trip Advisor.

Spinner Dolphins Marissa Sri Lanka

Spinner Dolphins in Marissa

Sperm Whales Marissa Sri Lanka

Sperm whales in Marissa

Muthurajawela Marsh

This wetland reserve is part of the Negombo lagoon. From within the reserve you can spot crocs, macaque monkey, monitor lizards, kingfishers, egrets, herons and ducks. Taking a Sri Lanka safari in this reserve will take you way off the beaten path.

Many people stay in Negombo at the beginning or end of their trip because of the proximity to the airport. But they often don’t venture past the beach. You can avoid the crowds of the more popular national parks and have the lagoon to yourself with a visit to Mutharajawela.

Pro Tip: You can take a tuk tuk to the reserve, but the long haul getting out there is likely to asphyxiate you with gas fumes. So unless you have a rental car, ask your hotel to book the trip for you or do it through Trip Advisor.

Muthurajawela reserve crocodile

Crocodile in Muthurajawela

Muthurajawela Reserve Negombo Lagoon Sri Lanka

Muthurajawela landscape near Nebomgo

The Best Way to Book Your Sri Lanka Wildlife Safari

If you are traveling on a tour, then your guide will handle the transfer to the park, hiring the wildlife safari guide and your entrance fees.

We hired a private guide/driver for our trip and he was great. If you would like a referral, contact me and I’ll connect you with him.

If you are traveling independently, then you will need to use a variety of methods to find the best provider.

  • For Minneriya/Kaudulla and Udawalawa, get a recommendation from your hotel or guesthouse because it’s difficult to figure out how to find a provider otherwise.
  • The Elephant Transit Center can easily be visited independently, but have your hotel check in advance for the feeding time, which is the best time to visit.
  • For Yala, if you stay at one of the luxury properties, like Cinnamon Wild, then they will arrange the safari add-on for you. The benefit of this is that they are located right next to the park entrance and the safari provider serve only the hotel guests, which means that you get on site faster. If you want stay in Tissa at one of the inexpensive guest houses, you can ask your provider to arrange a safari pick-up, but it will be a longer day because of the time spent doing the pick-ups and drop-offs. The upside is that the safari will be much cheaper.
  • For Marissa, it’s easy enough to arrange something through Trip Advisor, as mentioned above and then get yourself to the harbor.
  • For the Muthurajawela Marsh, catch a cab or tuktuk from town.

These five parks and reserves will give you a Sri Lanka safari with the best wildlife that the country has to offer. Enjoy your trip and happy trails.

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Sri Lanka Wildlife 5 places to visit


Friday 30th of June 2017

So many amazing species on this special island ... can't wait to get out to Sri Lanka!


Thursday 18th of May 2017

Wow! I need to go back and check the wildlife in Sri Lanka. They got good beaches there, too. Oh, not to mention, beautiful people and delicious food! Very tasty!

Carol Guttery

Friday 19th of May 2017

What's not to love?

Megan Claire (@mappingmegan)

Tuesday 16th of May 2017

I would love to get to Sri Lanka for a wildlife safari - I find that for some reason people do only associate Africa with the safari experience, when Asia is just incredible and diverse in terms of landscape and wildlife. Incredible photos, I think Sri Lanka is one of those places which is going to be an up and coming hot destination very soon!

Carol Guttery

Friday 19th of May 2017

You are so right. Tourism is on the rise there but it's still an affordable destination


Tuesday 16th of May 2017

Oh wow this is incredible. I have a work colleague from Sri Lanka and she talks about the culture all the time and she mentioned the importance of the elephants but I never imagined safaris. Sperm whales too. Wow. Great post. Sri Lanka is already on my to go to list but even more so now.

Carol Guttery

Friday 19th of May 2017

All the more reason to go


Monday 15th of May 2017

Love this! I already mentioned I had two friends who did a trip like this for their honeymoon and they just loved it. It looks like you were able to really see all the big animals in a beautiful. Thanks for the pro tips, they will make anyones trip a bit easier to plan.

Carol Guttery

Friday 19th of May 2017

I hope so

Comments are closed.