Sri Lanka Wildlife

National Parks and Wildlife in Sri Lanka (Updated)

March 23rd, 2015
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When you hear the words ‘National Park’ you might think of places like The Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. When asked about National Parks, not many people will think about Sri Lanka. But as a matter of fact, Sri Lanka boasts some of the best National Parks in the world! Sri Lanka encompasses a total of 26 National Parks which collectively cover 5,734km2, which may not seem like a lot, but relative to the small size of Sri Lanka (65,610km2) this means that almost 9% of Sri Lanka’s total area consists of National Park. Sri Lanka’s National Parks are a haven of flora, fauna, and conservation, and are also extremely important in the survival of many animals such as the Sri Lankan Elephant.

National Parks are areas of protected land with the main purpose of protecting wild-nature. In 1969 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) declared national parks to have the following characteristics:

  • One or several ecosystems not materially altered by human exploitation and occupation, where plant and animal species, geomorphological sites and habitats are of special scientific, educational, and recreational interest or which contain a natural landscape of great beauty;
  • Highest competent authority of the country has taken steps to prevent or eliminate exploitation or occupation as soon as possible in the whole area and to effectively enforce the respect of ecological, geomorphological, or aesthetic features which have led to its establishment; and
  • Visitors are allowed to enter, under special conditions, for inspirational, educative, cultural, and recreative purposes.

In 1971 these criteria were redefined, leading to a clearer definition for the evaluation of national parks. The expanded criteria includes:

  • Minimum size of 1,000 hectares within zones in which protection of nature takes precedence
  • Statutory legal protection
  • Budget and staff sufficient to provide sufficient effective protection
  • Prohibition of exploitation of natural resources (including the development of dams) qualified by such activities as sport, fishing, the need for management, facilities, etc.

Almost every country in the world now has a National Park, and these parks attract many tourists every year providing a boost for the local economy as well as conserving the countries wildlife and ecosystems.

The Big Four

Sri Lanka is a small island country with an area of approximately 65,000km2 located in Southeast Asia, Southeast of India and Northeast of the Maldives. Sri Lanka is situated in the tropical waters of the Indian Ocean. Although it is an island, Sri Lanka offers an amazing experience to anyone who visits. This unique country boasts an abundance of amazing wildlife with stunning scenery to match. Sri Lanka is Asia’s top wildlife destination and possibly the best destination for wildlife viewing outside of Africa. In Sri Lanka, there are approximately 26 National Parks, some of which are UNESCO heritage sites due to their unique biodiversity. Sri Lanka is also home to The Big Four; the Sri Lankan Elephant, the elusive Leopard, the Sloth Bear and the Blue Whale. Covered in rainforest, Sri Lanka is home to more species of flora and fauna than you could possibly imagine. Sri Lanka National Parks provide a safe haven and an environment where natural ecosystems and wildlife can flourish. With 26 National Parks to choose from, what’s to stop you from making a trip to one (or 26!) of these incredible areas of natural beauty during your stay in Sri Lanka?

A history of conservation

Sri Lanka has a history of nature conservation and it’s believed that Sri Lanka’s first national park was established between 377 BC and 1017AD, most likely around the 3rd century AD. Most of Sri Lanka’s current national parks date back to colonial times or even earlier in Sri Lanka’s history. Sri Lanka’s national parks are governed by the 1937 Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance (No.2) and can also only be created, abolished or changed by ministerial order from the government. The first two official national parks in Sri Lanka are Yala and Wilpattu National Parks. Both were established on February the 25th 1938. All 26 of the Sri Lankan national parks cover a variety of different geography and habitats, from mountainous montane forest to Sri Lanka dry-zone dry evergreen forests, grasslands, and wetland lagoons. Sri Lanka has a vast array of untouched natural habitats for you to enjoy. The biological diversity that this small island encompasses is huge. Sri Lanka has an incredible amount of endemism of both flora and fauna. Specifically, 16% of fauna and 23% of flora are endemic to the country, making Sri Lanka even more unique than you could possibly imagine.

Yala National Park

Yala National Park is located in the South-East of Sri Lanka next to the Indian Ocean. It covers an area of 1300km2 and consists of light forests, scrubs, grasslands, tanks, and lagoons. In the early 20th century Yala was defined as a wildlife sanctuary, and in 1938 named a national park. Ironically, Yala National Park was previously a hunting ground during the colonial period. Yala National Park is home to 44 different species of mammal and approximately 215 species of bird. Yala also has the largest concentration of leopards in the world as well as the Sri Lankan Elephant, Sloth Bears, Peacock, and Crocodile. The many species of bird that reside in Yala include the Black-necked Stork and Lesser Adjutant, which are a rare breed of bird that one can spot in Yala. The migrant Great White Pelican and resident Spot-billed Pelican have also been sighted at Yala. A recommended time to visit Yala National Park is between February and July during the dry season, meaning that animals will gather around predictable water sources, making them easier to spot. In Yala National Park visitors can go camping, partake on safari tours, go birdwatching and go on relaxing beach walks, making it the perfect relaxing nature vacation while also providing the excitement of spotting some incredible wild animals.

Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu National Park is located on the North-Western coast of Sri Lanka, overlooking the Indian Ocean. The park covers an area of 1,317km2 and consists of scrub, natural lakes, marshland, and forest. Wilpattu derived its name from the word “Willus” which means “Natural Lake”. Wilpattu National Park has the unique feature of many natural lakes, which are sand-rimmed water basins or natural depressions in the land that fill with rainwater, creating beautiful lakes. These natural lakes are hotspots for all sorts of animals to gather for a refreshing drink and bathe, especially in the dry summer months. Wildlife in Wilpattu National Park includes 31 species of mammal, including the sloth bear, the Sri Lankan elephant and the elusive Leopard. Other mammals that can be viewed in this Sri Lankan National Park include water buffalo and mongoose. Many species of bird can also be spotted at Wilpattu National Park, including the painted stork, the open bill, little cormorant and the Sri Lankan jungle fowl, along with many species of owl, terns, gulls, eagles, and kites buzzards, making this Sri Lankan National Park a great bird watching location. Due to the marshy land in Wilpattu National Park, many wetland birds can be viewed here too.

New additions to the National Park collection

Among Sri Lanka’s national parks are four new national parks. Sri Lanka’s most recently established National Parks are Adam’s Bridge, Chundikkulam, Delft and Madhu Road. All of these National Parks were established on June the 22nd 2015 and are located in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province. Adam’s Bridge is a marine national park and covers an area of 190km2. As a marine national park, Adam’s Bridge boasts some unique wildlife, including dolphins, dugongs, and turtles. Chundikkulam National Park covers an area of 111km2 and features Chundikkulam lagoon which is surrounded by mangrove swamp and sea grass beds, while the outer surrounding area consists of palmyra palm plantations, scrub forests and a variety of dry-zone flora. Due to the mostly wet-land nature of Chundikkulam National Park, it is not uncommon to see many varieties of water and wader birds here, including the bar-tailed godwit, the black-tailed godwit, the black-winged stilt, the brown-headed gull, the common sandpiper and the Eurasian Coot. This park is also home to a number of interesting mammals including the leopard and the sloth bear, and it also home to the mugger crocodile and the saltwater crocodile. Delft National Park is located on Delft Island on the North-west corner of Sri Lanka. Delft National Park covers an area of 18km2 and is the only location in the world where one can see truly wild ponies, which are believed to have been introduced to the island by the Portuguese. Madhu Road National Park is located inland in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province and covers an area of 267km2. Madhu Road National Park is home to numerous varieties of bird including the brown-headed barbet, the red-rumped swallow, and the Sri Lanka green pigeon. Madhu National Park is also home to the Sri Lankan Elephant, Chital, Leopards, and Toque Macaques. Due to their close proximity with each other, visiting all four of these national parks is feasible for one vacation in Sri Lanka, and by visiting all four of these Sri Lankan National Parks, you are almost guaranteed to see an astonishing variety of wildlife, including the Big Four.

Wild elephants and ‘The Gathering’

Similar to Africa’s famous Big Five, Sri Lanka boasts the presence of the Big Four. The Big Four are attractive animals that people travel from far and wide to view. These animals can be difficult to spot and are mostly threatened species, while also being mind-blowingly beautiful. Sri Lanka’s Big Four are; the Sri Lankan Elephant, the Sri Lankan Leopard, the Sloth Bear and the Blue Whale. The Sri Lankan Elephant is possibly one of the main reasons that people choose to visit the country and visit one of the many Sri Lankan National Parks. As ecotourism gains traction, more and more people opt to see Elephants in their natural habitats. The Sri Lankan Elephant is a sub-species of Asian Elephant and is thought to have initially arrived from India. Previously they were able to freely roam the entire island but are now restricted to National Parks and Reserves as much of their habitat is turned into crop fields. The Elephants in Sri Lanka can sometimes be seen in herds of up to 10 to 12 at one time. Sri Lankan Elephants are classified as endangered due to brisk habitat loss and poaching for their ivory tusks. Fortunately for the Sri Lankan Elephant, the penalty for killing an Elephant in Sri Lanka is the death penalty and they are protected by law. Every year in Sri Lanka there is an annual spectacle called “The Gathering”. At this time up to 400 Sri Lankan Elephants can be viewed together. The Gathering occurs during the dry-season where the Elephants gather at a large predictable water source which provides the perfect area for feeding, drinking, and breeding. A lot of Elephant calves are usually present at The Gathering also which makes this a once in a lifetime opportunity that you should not miss while on your visit to the Sri Lankan National Parks. National Parks which are notably good to view the Sri Lankan Elephant are Kaudulla National Park (located in North-Central Sri Lanka) and Udawalawe National Park (located in the Southern Part of the island).

 

Elephants in Yala National Park

The wonder that is the Sri Lankan leopard

The Sri Lankan Leopard is viewed as a wonder, and rightfully so. Sri Lanka is thought to have one of the highest leopard densities in the world. In 2015 the Leopard population in Sri Lanka was thought to be 700 to 950 individuals, and in 2008 the Sri Lankan Leopard was classified as endangered. Like the Sri Lankan Elephant, the Sri Lankan Leopard is also threatened by habitat loss and poaching. Due to their extremely elusive behavior, spotting one of these animals could be the highlight of your Sri Lanka National Park trip. The best national parks in Sri Lanka to view the elusive leopard include Yala National Park (located in the South-east of the island) and Wilpattu National Park (located on the North-western coast of the island). The best time of year to view leopard in Sri Lanka National Parks is between July and September during the dry season, where the leopards will frequent predictable water sources for hunting and drinking purposes.

The vulnerable Sloth Bear

Sloth Bears are thought to have evolved from Brown Bears before becoming isolated on the Island of Sri Lanka. These bears have a diet of fruit and insects and are visually very cute. However, they have been known to attack humans who encroach on their territory! Sloth Bears are noted as vulnerable on the IUCN conservation status due to habitat loss and poaching. The best Sri Lankan National Parks to see Sloth Bears are said to be Wilpattu National Park and Yala National Park. May and June are the best months to view sloth bears in Sri Lanka National Parks, as the bears will climb trees to eat the freshly ripened fruit.

Unforgettable whale watching

The Southern tip of Sri Lanka is said to be the best place in the world to go whale watching, so if you are interested in viewing some unforgettable marine life, you should consider making this location part of your Sri Lanka National Park trip. The whale’s migration path is located not far from Dondra Point on the southern tip of Sri Lanka. The blue whale is the largest mammal on earth, spanning up to 130 meters in length and the maximum recorded weight being 173 tons (173000kg). The best time of year to come to Sri Lanka to see the magnificent blue whale is between November and April, while the whales travel on their long migration from Antarctica and up north through the Indian Ocean where they escape the harsh polar winter and come to breed and give birth in the warmer, tropical waters of the northern Indian Ocean.

Cultural sites, beaches and more…

Apart from The Big Four, Sri Lanka’s National Parks offer an abundance of incredible things to see and to do. Whilst in Sri Lanka you can see a number of religious sites, some located within the national parks, you can see botanical gardens, beaches, mountains, waterfalls, and rivers and lakes, as well as other industrialized forms of entertainment such as cities and malls located within Colombo and other major metropolitan areas of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has a rich history including a strong Buddhist influence, meaning that Sri Lanka is abundant in Buddhist temples and stupas. Some of the best Buddhist attractions to visit in Sri Lanka include The Temple of the Tooth Relic, which is located in the center of Sri Lanka. This temple is home to the crown jewel of the city. Another great Buddhist attraction is Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) which is Sri Lanka’s fourth highest mountain standing at 2244 meters high. This is an important pilgrim site and Buddhists believe that the impression on the summit is the footprint of Lord Buddha. A beautiful botanical garden in Sri Lanka is Botanic Gardens Avissawella (located in the Sri Lankan town of Avissawella) where you can see a stunning variety of well-kept flora. Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is situated on the Southeastern coast, with some stunning beaches. Other beautiful beaches in Sri Lanka include Berula and Bentota beach (located on the Western coast of Sri Lanka), Mirissa beach (located on the Southern tip of the island) and Trincomalee beach (located on the Northeastern side of the island). Sri Lanka has a lot of great mountains to choose from which are great for hiking, such as Riverston Peak or Rumasalla Mountain. If you are interested in waterfalls, Sri Lanka has a lot. The best waterfalls in Sri Lanka include Ravana Falls which has a height of 25 meters (82 feet), Diyaluma which has a height of 220 meters (721 feet) and flows rapidly, making the water appear white and frothy, and Kithulgala Falls where you can take a refreshing swim. Sri Lanka also has some beautiful rivers and lakes where you can easily spend an entire day relaxing. A few of Sri Lanka’s best lakes include the manmade Gregory Lake and the stunning Sembuwatta Lake. The great thing about Sri Lanka being a relatively small island is that all of these attractions are only a stone’s throw away from a national park. We guarantee, whether you are in Sri Lanka for 3 days or 3 months, you will never run out of things to do.

Tropical climate and monsoon seasons

The Sri Lankan climate is tropical and warm all year-round, meaning that your Sri Lanka national park holiday will be pleasurable whichever time of year you choose to visit. Temperatures range from 17C (63F) to 33C (91F). Rainfall in Sri Lanka, like much of Southeast Asia, is influenced by monsoon winds. Sri Lanka features two separate monsoon seasons which range between May to September and October to February. Make sure you research these seasons before you book your Sri Lanka safari holiday to ensure that the weather at your time of visit suits your expectations. Although there is no best time to visit Sri Lanka, as the country is a popular holiday destination year-round, a good time of year to visit Sri Lanka for a Sri Lanka National Park trip would be between February and July when the water levels are low, meaning more animals will gather at predictable water sources, making them easier to spot. This also falls after the Monsoon seasons have finished, meaning that the flora will still be luscious and green.

Being prepared

When visiting any country it is important that you check the relative health risks and visit your local travel clinic before you depart. Sri Lanka is in a tropical climate and comes with associated health risks which include malaria, hepatitis B, and typhoid. Malaria is not considered to pose a large risk in Sri Lanka however if you are embarking on a Sri Lanka National Park trip and plan to go deep into the Sri Lankan jungle, then ensure to tell your doctor this information before you depart so they can ensure that you have all of the appropriate vaccinations and protection that you need for your trip.

 

Sri Lanka is a small yet beautifully diverse and unique country which many people choose to visit time and time again. Many people choose to come back for the variety of things to do on this island, including relaxing beach breaks, exciting Sri Lanka National Park trips, hiking, and visiting ancient monuments and temples. Although Sri Lanka is a small island you will never be bored as there is always a variety of activities occurring across the country.

 

What are your thoughts on Sri Lanka? Have you visited the island already or have you been inspired to do so in the future? Let us know if this tiny and unique island paradise will be part of your holiday plans this year.

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