Spot that leopard: Sri Lanka wildlife tours and safaris

BY Lucie, Yonder escapologist
The thrill of Sri Lanka wildlife holidays is uniquely timeless. The hushed silence of the forest floor interrupted by the sudden, shrill call of a bird and the rustle of branches, and the ever-present prospect of spotting a cleverly camouflaged big cat amidst the scrub the visual and aural rush of a Sri Lanka wildlife safari defies description. It is the sort of travel experience that leaves an indelible impression on all those who experience it.  

When it comes to Sri Lanka wildlife tours, the island’s compact size works as a distinct advantage. Not only is the tiny nation among the most biodiverse countries in Asia, with as many as 26 protected national parks, but most of these are also within easy reach of capital Colombo. Given how convenient it is to travel to the country’s most popular wildlife hotspots such as Yala, Udawalawe and Wilpattu National Parks it doesn’t require extensive planning to include a safari experience in your travel itinerary, or even plan a dedicated Sri Lanka wildlife tour.

Most tourists to the island flock to Yala National Park, located on the southeastern tip of the country for good reason. Bordered by the Indian Ocean along its southern edge, Yala offers a unique confluence of scrubland and coastal wilderness. But its international reputation hinges on the fact that it has one of the highest population densities of Sri Lanka’s stealthy apex predator the Panthera pardus kotiya or the Sri Lankan leopard. Simply put, your chances of spotting a leopard in the wild are particularly high at Yala National Park.

The thrill of encountering these reclusive big cats apart from the Elephas maximus maximus or Sri Lankan elephant, the Sri Lankan sloth bear and a variety of other mammals and birds within a relatively well-defined area is one of the reasons why Yala continues to be the most-visited wildlife park in the country. Yala is one of Sri Lanka’s pricier tourist attractions, however, compared to wildlife parks in other parts of the world such as South Africa, where safaris usually cost several hundred dollars per person Yala’s rates are very reasonable.

On the flip side, this has meant that Yala has become a victim of its own popularity in recent years. Frequently busy with noisy jeeps, it can seem a tad overexposed and commercial in comparison to some of the other national parks in the country.

Two leopards spotted on a granite outcrop in Yala National Park

Although it is now overshadowed by Yala, Wilpattu National Park on the northwestern coast, was once considered the leopard capital of the country. The country’s largest national park, Wilpattu is named after its chief feature: a number of ‘villus’ or natural lakes that dot its sprawling landscape. Natural reservoirs that fill up during the monsoon season, Wilpattu’s water bodies provide a lush counterpoint to the arid jungle landscape.

Closed for 25 years during Sri Lanka’s three-decade-long civil war, Wilpattu National Park reopened to the public in 2010. A camera survey conducted by the Wilderness and Wildlife Conservation Trust in 2014-15 found that the park had a population of 49 leopards. Given the park’s size, leopard sightings may not be as frequent as in Yala, but there is still a good chance that you will spot a big cat or two, in addition to a variety of reptiles, mammals and birds.

Leopards may be extremely rare in Udawalawe National Park, but the country’s third most visited wildlife destination is sure to satisfy your hankering for the quiet outdoors. Located just south of the country’s Central Highlands, Udawalawe has the largest population of wild elephants on the island. (In fact, it is the only national park where an elephant sighting is guaranteed on every safari, making it perfect if your interest is elephant holidays in Sri Lanka). With acres of scrub and grassland, Udawalawe is a quieter alternative and antidote to the overcrowded wildlife experience.

Each of Sri Lanka’s national parks is distinct, offering a snapshot of the country’s diverse landscapes and the species that inhabit them, making them a key ingredient in Sri Lanka private tours. From remote Gal Oya National Park, which is home to a population of ‘swimming elephants’, which have evolved over generations to swim from island to island in search of food, to the Sinharaja Forest Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is particularly rich in birdlife, Sri Lanka adventure tours truly spoil you for choice. And of course, you can combine the amazing wildlife with culture, Tea Country, cities and the island’s superlative beaches in an itinerary created uniquely for you.

Here are the best times to visit the main parks:

Yala National Park: February to July

Wilpattu National Park: May to early October

Udawalawe National Park: May to September


Yonder provides luxury safari holidays to Sri Lanka.  There are a vast array of options and with no fewer than 26 national parks wildlife holidays can be easily incorporated into a tour of Sri Lanka.

Yonder provides tailor-made tours which can include safari experiences in Yala National Park, Udawalawe National Park, Gal Oya National Park and Wilpatu National Park.

Within each of these National Parks in Sri Lanka, Yonder has painstakingly sifted through the plethora of hotels to create a short list of the most exquisite boutique hotels and those properties that provide a genuine experience.

If you want a simple starting point or want to find specific details for a luxury safari holiday, have a look through Yonder’s Destinations pages or browse the Culture and Wildlife pages within their Inspirations and Collections pages.

All Yonder itineraries are crafted on a tailor-made, one-off basis, so you can be sure that your holiday will be as individual as you are.