Sri Lanka is one of the best wildlife destinations in the world. If you like camping  jeep safaris, bird watching, whale/dolphin watching, surfing, snorkeling, rainforests or touring scenic areas then this teardrop island has much to offer.

The following provides a summary of what, where and when to visit.

National Parks

Ruhunu West (Yala) National Park

Located in the south-east of Sri Lanka, Yala is 126,786 hectares of scrub, light forest, grassy plains and brackish lagoons sitting on a long stretch of coastline, punctuated by rocky outcrops

It is the premier national park of Sri Lanka, and arguably one of the best for mammals in Asia.

Best for: leopards, sambar and spotted deer, sloth bears, langur monkey, water buffalo, wild pig, stripe-necked and ruddy mongooses, wild elephants, crocodiles, monitor lizards, golden jackal and Indian palm civet. Also hosts 120 different species of birds.
Best time to visit: November to April.
It is considered the perfect season to catch a glimpse of the young cubs since it is just after the annual closure from September to October for the mating season.
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 305kms / 6 hours

Udalwalawe National Park

Created to protect the watershed of the enormous Uda Walawe Reservoir, this park, just south of the central mountains, has extensive stretches of grassland as well as scrub jungle and riverine forest.

Best for: wild elephants - there are around 500 in the park. Birdwatchers will enjoy the presence of  the changeable hawk eagle, serpent eagle and grey-headed fish eagle.
Best time to visit: July to September
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 230kms / 4 hours

Wilpattu National Park

Sri Lanka’s largest national park situated in the dry lowlands of the island’s north-west and comprises a series of lakes – or villus – with varying degrees of freshness or salinity.

Best for: The park’s fauna is similar to Yala, but visitors also have a chance of seeing the muntjac or barking deer. Leopards and sloth bears are a big attraction too.
Best time to visit: During the months of February and October.
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 183kms / 4 hours

Minneriya National Park

Located in the North Central Province, circling the beautiful Minneriya Tank. Scrub jungle surrounds the lakes and contains many mammals. Part of the elephant corridor, it joins Kaudalla and Wasgomuwa.

Best for: Seasonal elephants and large flocks of little cormorants. Note - although there are many mammals, game viewing is generally poor.
Best time to visit: The ‘Gathering’ takes place in Minneriya during September and October, when over 300 elephants come together on the bed of Minneriya Lake, which dries out to create a lush grassland. It is ranked 6th in Lonely Planet's ten greatest wildlife spectacles.
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 182kms / 5.5 hours

Wasgomuwa National Park

Located in the North Central Province, closer to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa.  It is bordered by the ‘Mahaweli' and ‘Amban' rivers, stretches an impressive 36,948 hectares. With many small scale ancient tanks and several other ruins and ancient religious sites the park also has significant historical importance.  For keen hikers, it is also home to the ‘Sudu Kanda' mountain range (about 470m above sea level).

Best for: Sighting wild elephants
Best time to visit: During the months of January and March.
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 225kms / 6 hours

Maduru Oya Wild Life Reserve

It was established under the Mahaweli development project and acts as a catchment of the Maduru Oya Reservoir. Located in the dry zone, the area of park is 58,850 hectares and provides sanctuary to wildlife, especially for elephants. A community of Vedda people, the indigenous ethnic group of Sri Lanka lives within the park boundary in Henanigala. Access route to Maduru Oya National Park is through Mahiyangana Padiyatalawa road.

Best for: Wild elephants, bears, leopards, sambhur, water buffalo, purple monkey, variety of deer, reptiles. Aquatic birds thrive in the park - sea eagle, great cormorant, little cormorant, painted stork, Sri Lankan jungle fowl, tailor bird, white ramped sharma, black hooded oriole, red faced malkoha. to name a few.
Best time to visit: All year round
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 265kms / 6-7 hours

Gal Oya 

The park covers an area of 25,900 hectare rich with flora and fauna. About 45% of the park is covered with the forest and about 33% is covered with savanna. The legends say that this was previously a Medicine Garden of King Buddhadasa. There are also some ruins inside the jungle.  It has been found that there are 182 Medicinal Plants including Indian Goosberry and Myrobalan-Binkohomba.

Best for:  Elephants, leopard, wild boar, water buffalo, sloth bear, 150 species of birds - can be seen by either boat or jeep safari (note - the boat safari is worthwhile as the reservoir has many small islands and you can watch the herds of elephants swim from island to island)
Best time to visit: Between March and July
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 314kms / 6-7 hours

Bird Watching

Kumana National Park

Well-known and popular bird sanctuary where a multitude of birds breed and roost. A large variety of water birds can be seen in the Kumana Villu - a natural mangrove swamp lake, which covers 200 hectares. It is an absolute must for bird watching enthusiasts! There is only one entrance to the Park from Panama, through the Kudumbigala Sanctuary.

Best for: Regular sightings of pelicans, painted storks, spoonbills, white ibis, herons, egrets and little cormorants. The very rare black-necked stork has been spotted at the swamp.
Best time to visit: Many water birds nest in May and June.
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 345kms / 8 hours

Bundala Bird Sanctuary

Located in the deep south of the island on the way to Yala, it covers an area of 6216 hectares. It is popular with local and migratory birds. Around 167 species have been sighted around the sanctuary, and it is also considered the last refuge of the Greater Flamingo in this part of the island. The lagoons constitute one of the most popular wintering areas of migratory shore birds in the country. A total of 383 plant species have been recorded, including 6 endemics and 7 species that are considered nationally threatened.

Best for: Greater Flamingo and many species of local and migratory birds
Best time to visit: November to December
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 250kms / 3-4 hours

Horton Plains National Park

Towering up in the central highlands, Horton Plains is the highest plateau on the island. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage (Natural) site in 2010. The cloud forests here are rich in endemic plants and animals that have adapted to the cooler climes (nighttime temperatures can fall below zero). Birds such as the Sri Lankan whistling thrush and Sri Lankan bush warbler are best seen here. The dwarf lizard, found only in the montane zone, has evolved the ability to give birth to live young in order to avoid the problems of laying in such egg-chilling temperatures.

Best for: Birdwatching around the stunning 880m drop-off of World’s End.
Best time to visit: March to May
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 163kms / 4-5 hours

Sinharaja Rain Forest

A UNESCO World Heritage site (Nature) declared in 1988 that is situated in the wet south-west of the island close to Ratnapura. It is considered Sri Lanka's premier rainforest. The canopy towers up to 45m in places and more than half of the trees here are found nowhere else in the world. A variety of indigenous plants and animals, flowing rivers and silent streamlets cover up nearly 11,187 hectares.

Best for: Mixed-species bird flocks - around six endemic birds may make up one flock, including species such as red-faced malkoha, green-billed coucal and Sri Lankan blue magpie. Animals present include leopard, purple-faced langur, barking deer and three types of squirrel.
Best time to visit:  December - April; August and September.
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 160kms / 3.5-4 hours

Whale / Dolphin Watching


Dondra Head is considered the main port for whale watching because of its close proximity to the coast. During December to April there is 95% chance of spotting Sperm Whales and great chances of spotting Blue Whales as their migration path is just off Dondra Head. There are also good chances of spotting Spinner Dolphins.

Best for: Sperm whales, Blue whales
Best time to visit: December, January and April
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 195kms / 2-4 hours (less time if using freeway)


Kalpitiya is the best place if you are interested in seeing Dolphins. At a time you can witness 1000-1500 Dolphins. Whale sightings are not that frequent off Kalpitiya compared to Dondra.

Best for: Dolphins - Spotted Dolphins, Spinner Dolphins, Fraser's Dolphins, Risso's Dolphins, Common Dolphins and the Bottlenose Dolphins
Best time to visit: November to March
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 165kms / 3.5 hours


During May to August, Blue Whales remain  close, around 6-8 nautical miles East of Trincomalee. Koneswaram Temple atop Swamy Rock is the best publicly accessible on-shore whale watch point in the world for watching Blue Whales. Between March to August, Trincomalee has a combined strike rate of over 80 per cent for Blue and Sperm Whales. Dolphins (mainly Spinner Dolphins) have a higher strike rate.

Best for: Whales and Dolphins
Best time to visit: May to August
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 260kms / 4-5 hours

Turtle Watching

Rekawa Turtle Sanctuary

One of the best locations to see marine turtles in Sri Lanka and also in the world. Rekawa  is 7 km east of Tangalle on the south coast of Sri Lanka. Protected by the Turtle Conservation Project since 1996, the sanctuary is quite distinct from the turtle hatcheries as it protects the various nesting sites from predators. Visitors are allowed to watch this moving ritual inscribed for millions of years in the genetic heritage of sea turtles. Turtles lay their eggs (when they also hatch) at night between 19.00 and 03.00.

Best for: Green Turtle, Olive Ridley Turtle, Leatherback Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle and the Loggerhead Turtle
Best time to visit: Between January and July when an average of 17 turtles a day come onto the shore at Rekawa
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 190kms / 5.5 hours

Kosgoda Sea Turtle Conservation Project

Kosgoda is famous for its turtle hatchery operated by the Wild Life Protection Society of Sri Lanka. It was established in 1981 to protect Sri Lanka’s turtles from extinction. The hatcheries pay fishermen for eggs that they collect at night along the long sandy beach.

Best for: Green Turtle, Olive Ridley Turtle, Leatherback Turtle, Hawksbill Turtle and the Loggerhead Turtle
Best time to visit: Between October to April
Distance/Drive time from Colombo: 75kms / 2.5 hours

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