Sri Lanka is an island country in the Indian Ocean located between the Indian subcontinent and the rest of SouthEast Asia. Other than its 2000 years old rich cultural heritage, Sri Lanka tourism is a journey through a picturesque landscape of pristine beaches, lush forests and highlands, delicious food, and mighty wildlife. There are some of the best national parks in Sri lanka.
Thanks to its ideal location, Sri lanka is blessed with an alluring habitat for all forms of wildlife with an isolated mainland, vast oceans, heavy rainfall, and a wide range of altitudes. Sri Lanka’s wildlife encompasses more than 400 species of exotic birds, leopards, regal elephants,water buffalos, sloth bears, toque macaques, grey langurs, purple-faced leaf monkeys, sambhurs, deers, hogs, wild boars, porcupines, ant-eaters, civet cats, lorises, giant squirrels, reptiles and a wide range of marine life including the magnificent blue whale.
The Sri Lankan society has been traditionally taking measures to conserve the environment since the 3rd c. BC. The first milestone was achieved when a Buddhist monarch established Mihintale as the world’s first wildlife sanctuary. Sri Lanka continues to preserve its natural abundance by designating 13% of the country for wildlife protection. With around 100 areas of protected land, there are a number of the finest safari parks and sanctuaries in the sub continent.
In order to experience the wildlife without the hindrance of the monsoon it is best to travel to Sri Lanka during :
- December to March to the west and southern coast,
- July to August to the east coast beaches
- February to April for snorkelling with blue whales
Top 10 national parks in Sri Lanka
- Yala national park
- Minneriya national park
- Bundala national park
- Wilpattu national park
- Udawalawe national park
- Horton plains national park
- Kaudulla national park
- Gal Oya national park
- Wasgamuwa national park
- Kumana national park
Here is a list of the best national parks in Sri Lanka where you may select a tour from a variety of choices or even customize one based on your preferences. You can experience nature in camps and observe flora, fauna, and enjoy bird watching.
1. Yala national park
Yala is a protected area of nearly 130,000 hectares of land situated in Sri Lanka’s south-east with a seascape of the Indian Ocean. It is one of the most famous national parks in Sri Lanka with the most diverse wildlife. The park is divided into 5 blocks, with only two of them open to the public (zone 1 and zone 5). Ironically it used to be a hunting ground under the british rule and was designated a national park in 1938.
It is an array of light forests, tanks, lagoons, water holes, scrubs and grasslands. 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species find refuge in the park. The world’s biggest concentration of leopards, majestic elephants, sloth bears, sambars, jackals, spotted deer, peacocks, and crocodiles are found here. The lagoons in the park attract many migrating waterfowl like Pintail, Garganey, Eurasian Curlew and Whimbrel. Other water birds found here are flamingo, pelicon, spoonbill, painted stork, rare black necked Stork, grey heron, and many more. Cobra and Russel’s Viper are among the many deadly reptiles found in Yala.
Average temperature range: 260C to 300C
Climatic conditions: Despite its greenery, Yala is in a hot, semi-arid environment.
Rainfall: Yala gets most of its rainfall from September to December.
Best time to visit: February to July (the animals are drawn into the open with the water levels of the park being low)
Timings to watch wildlife: 5.30 am to 6.30 pm
How to reach: 6 hours drive from Bandaranaike International Airport
2. Minneriya national park
Located in the north central plains of Sri Lanka, Minneriya national park covers an area of 8,889 hectares. This national park in Sri Lanka is mostly famous for the most spectacular annual elephant gatherings. It has been documented to be the largest known meeting place of Asian Elephants in the world. Vegetation of Minneriya includes montane forests, secondary forests, scrublands, chena lands, grasslands, and wetlands. Another attraction is the great Minnerya lake which was built by the King Mahasen.
The park hosts 24 species of mammals such as leopards, sloth bears, deers, grey langers, three species of mongoose, Indian pangolins and over 170 species of birds like sandpipers, kentish plovers, malabar-pied hornbills, woodpeckers, Sri Lanka green pigeons, brown-capped babbler,etc. It is also home to 9 species of amphibians, 25 species of reptiles, 26 species of fish, and 75 species of butterflies.
Average temperature range: 20.6°C to 34.5°C
Climatic conditions: Moderate climate with lesser rainfall compared to other parts of the country
Rainfall: The monsoon lasts from October to January, and the area receives up to 79 inches of rainfall.
Best time to visit: May to October
Timings to watch wildlife: 6 am to 6:30 pm
How to reach: 4 hour drive from Colombo and 30 minutes away from Sigiriya (by car)
3. Bundala national park
Bundala National Park is located in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka. It was designated as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO in 2005. It is the first wetland to be proclaimed as a Ramsar site in Sri Lanka. Bundala is home to 32 species of mammals, 383 species of plants, 200 species of birds, 100 species of water birds and several species of reptiles.
The park is an internationally prime wintering ground for migratory water birds. Large flocks of flamingos arrive from Rann of Kutch of India during September and March . You can see over ten thousand shore birds in a day which is a sight to behold. Some of the other migratory birds are marsh and curlew sandpiper, curlew and greenshank golden and kentish Plover and red-necked phalarope. The lagoons attract many aquatic birds such as ibis, pelicans, painted storks, terns, egrets and spoonbills.
The forest is a habitat for the endangered Sri Lankan Elephant, Sambar Deer, Sri Lankan Leopard, Wild boar, Indian Gray Mongoose, Sri Lankan Sloth Bear, Sri Lankan Axis Deer, Small Indian Civet, Golden Jackal, and Indian Crested Porcupine .you can observe wildlife after dusk in the sleepy little hamlet.
Average temperature range: 24°C to 30°C
Climatic conditions: Generally hot and dry.
Rainfall: Annual rainfall varies between 900 mm to 1300 mm.
Best time to visit: September to March
Timings to watch wildlife: 6 am to 6 pm
How to reach: 30 to 40 minutes drive from Yala or Tissamaharama area.
4. Wilpattu national park
Being the largest wildlife sanctuary in Sri Lanka, Wilpattu national park spans an area of around 131,693 hectares. The topography of the park features 50 wetlands called “Villu” that are shallow natural lakes filled with rainwater. These lakes are surrounded by open grassy plain and provide abundance of water throughout most of the year.
This national park in Sri Lanka is a less famous park with few visitors even in the peak seasons. This gives wilpattu genuine wilderness and makes it ideal for dedicated safari lovers. It is located on the west coast of Sri lanka. It has dense forests, fifty wetlands and low scrubs. Wilpattu means ‘natural lakes’ in Sinhala, named appropriately as it has many lakes in the park. It is home to 31 species of mammals. It is most known for leopard and sloth bear sightings. The other animal species found here are Asian elephants, jackals, Sambar deer, water buffalo, crocodiles and spotted deer. Many species of butterflies, birds, reptiles and winter migrants, from November to March, can be found in the park.
Average temperature range: 27°C to 30°C
Climatic conditions: the park is green and has plenty of water sources most of the time even though it is situated in the dry zone.
Rainfall: Annual Rainfall is about 1000mm. Inter-monsoonal rains in March and the northeast monsoon (December – February) are the main sources of rainfall.
Best time to visit: February to October
Timings to watch wildlife: 5.30 am to 6 pm
How to reach: 4 hours drive from Colombo.
5. Udawalawe national park
Stretching over a land of 30,821 hectares, Udawalawe National Park is located 165 kilometres from Colombo. It is one the best national parks in Sri Lanka. Udawalawe is counted among the most famous East African national parks. It is the third most visited park in the country. The park has an elephant orphanage called Udawalawe Elephant Transfer Home which is home to over 40 orphaned elephants. The calves are raised in the orphanage with care until they are ready to be released to their habitat.
Udawalawe national park is mostly famous for its large Asian elephant population. You are almost guaranteed to spot elephants in this park as it is known to have approximately 500 elephants. The diversity of the park is constituted by 43 species of mammals, 184 species of birds, 33 species of reptiles, and 135 different species of butterflies. The park has satin trees which attract butterflies, some of the species found are Papilio crino, Delias eucharis, Euploea core and ‘Yellows and Whites’ Papilio polytes.
Average temperature range: 28° C to 30° C
Climatic conditions: Dry Monsoon forest
Rainfall: Annual rainfall is about 1520 mm
Best time to visit: October to January if you want to spot Asian Elephant herds
Timings to watch wildlife: 6 am to 6 pm
How to reach: 4 hour drive from Colombo
6. Horton plains national park
The Horton Plains National Park, formerly called ‘Maha-Eliya Tenna’ (The great open plains), is situated in the southern plateau of the central highlands of Sri Lanka at an elevation of 6,900 to 7,500 ft above sea level. It has a unique weather condition compared to other places in Sri Lanka, with the temperatures varying from 27 degrees centigrade during the day to 5 degrees centigrade in the night. Thick mist formation also occurs with regular rainfall throughout the year. The Plains are known for its impeccable beauty and magical setting. Due to its high altitude the plains have alluring mountains, tall trees, clean clear streams and cool breeze going around.
Vegetation in the plains mostly consists of montane grasslands and lesser sub-tropical montane evergreen cloud forests. The park is rich in biodiversity with close to 750 species of plants, 24 species of mammals, 87 species of birds, 9 species of reptiles, and 15 species of amphibians. Some of the plant species are Myrtaceae and Lauraceae species, dwarf bamboo species and many varieties of ferns, lichens and orchids. There are almost two thousand Sambar deers in the park. Other mammals include Purple faced langur, Kelaart’s long-clawed shrews, Toque macaques, the Red slender loris, Sri Lankan Leopard, Spotted chevrotain, Fishing cat. There are 21 endemic bird species to Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka Magpie, Dull-blue flycatcher, Sri Lanka White-eye and Sri Lanka Wood pigeon occur only in Horton Plains.
Horton Plains is one of the amazing national parks in Sri Lanka one can visit for trekking. Two important peaks Kirigalpoththa, the second highest peak, and Thotupola Kanda, the third highest peak, in the country are situated in the Hoton Plains. Another popular and most sought out location in the plains is the ‘World’s End’ which is a 700m vertical drop. It gives a stunning view of the valley below and the wonderful cascades of the Baker’s waterfall. It is a dream for trekking and bird watching.
Average temperature range: 14-16⁰ C
Climatic conditions: it is a wet Montane forest. The temperature drops to around 5⁰ Centigrade during the dry season in the day time.
Rainfall: Annual Rainfall of 2500 – 5000 mm
Best time to visit: November to March
Timings to watch wildlife: 6 AM – 6 PM
How to reach: 2 hours drive from the town of Nuwara Eliya
7. Kaudulla national park
The Kaudulla National Park located 197 kilometres away from Colombo, was declared as a National Park in the year 2002. Although Minneriya is a popular park to spot elephant gatherings, Kaudulla National Park is a great alternative for more mindful travellers as they can avoid being stuck in a national park traffic jam. It is home to more than two hundred elephants. The elephants move to the Kaudulla tank in search of more water and food from Minneriya after drinking and feeding from the Minneriya tank in the drought season.
The vegetation of the park is mostly dry evergreen forests. Other than elephants, there is much more to see. The fauna of the park includes 24 species of mammals, 25 species of reptiles, 160 species of bird and 26 species of fish. Some of the endemic species of mammals found here are Sri Lankan axis deer, Sri Lankan sambar deer, and Sri Lankan leopard. Kaudulla could be the only national park in Sri Lanka to have albino axis deer.
Average temperature range: 20.6 °C to 34.5 °C
Climatic conditions: The rains are mostly from north-eastern monsoons. Dry weather conditions prevail from April to October.
Rainfall: annual rainfall of 1,500–2,000 millimetres
Best time to visit: July to December
Timings to watch wildlife: 6 am – 6 pm
How to reach: About 1 hour 20 minutes from Trincomalee by road
8. Gal Oya national park
Situated in the south east of Sri Lanka in the Uva Province, Gal Oya National Park is a stretch of 25,900 hectares of lush evergreen forest and open savanas.The Senanayake Samudra lake in the park, Sri Lanka’s largest inland body of water, has tiny islands sprinkled on the surface of water. The lake makes Gal Oya the only National Park in Sri Lanka with boat safaris. The Park is tranquil and full of life peacefully existing.
Gal Oya national park in Sri Lanka is home to 32 species of mammal and 150 species of bird. The park has a large elephant population and provides the rare memorable sight of the Asian elephants swimming from one island to another. Being the strongest swimmers they have claimed the green islands to be their own.The species of mammals include common Langur, the endemic Toque Macaque, Sri Lankan Leopards and 3 species of Deer. The immense diversity of bird species include Sri Lanka’s largest bird, the Lesser Adjutant and the Red Faced Malkoha. The mugger crocodile, python and star tortoise have been recorded to reside in the park.
Average temperature range: 24.8° C to 32.4° C
Climatic conditions: lying 94m above sea level, the climate in Gal Oya is tropical. There are more rains in the winter.
Rainfall: Average annual rainfall of 1,700 millimetres.
Best time to visit: March to July
Timings to watch wildlife: Morning: 6 a.m and Afternoon: 2.30 p.m
How to reach: the park is 20 km west from Ampara by road
9. Wasgamuwa national park
The Wasgamuwa National Park (Wasgamuwa, derived from an ancient meaning as a gathering place for bears.) is located in the North Central Province of Sri Lanka in the districts of Matale and Polonnaruwa and spans 39,322 hectares. The vegetation here is typically mixed evergreen Dry Zone forest. Ruins of ancient Buddhist temples found in the park tell the story of prosperous villages that were once in the region. The ruins are estimated to be almost 1800 years old, featuring a reclining Buddha statue at Buduruwagala.
Wasgamuwa National Park is home to 23 mammal species, 140 bird species, 15 amphibian species, 35 reptile species, 52 butterfly species, 17 species of fish and 150 floral varieties. The park is popular for an abundance of sloth bears and it is the best place to sight large herds of elephants between November and May.
Average temperature range: 22° C to 31° C
Climatic conditions: Dry zone
Rainfall: Annual rainfall ranges from 1,750 mm to 2,250 mm
Best time to visit: November to May
Timings to watch wildlife: 6 am – 6 pm
How to reach: About 1 hour by road from Kandy
10. Kumana national park
Kumana national park (Yala east) is a stretch of 18,149 hectare located 391 kilometres southeast of Colombo on Sri Lanka’s southeastern coast. The vegetation mainly consists mainly of mangrove trees, kumbuk trees, the karan fern, and open marsh. Kumana is home to some mammals such as elephants and leopards.
A 200 hectare mangrove swamp lake called the ‘Kumana Villu’ is a hotspot for a wide variety of water birds, large flocks of migratory waterfowl and wading birds in May and June. This makes the park one of the top bird watching destinations in the world to spot the rarest species of birds with over 200 different species. The most famous species are the pintail snipes that migrate over 5000 miles from Russia. Other sightings include Sri Lanka’s very rare black-necked stork, Malabar pied hornbills, green bee-eaters, blade-headed orioles and painted storks.
Average temperature range: 20° C to 35.3° C
Climatic conditions: temperatures feel hot all year due to humidity with a low chance of precipitation
Rainfall: 1,300 mm of annual rainfall
Best time to visit: April to July
Timings to watch wildlife: 6 am – 6 pm
How to reach: 4 hours by road from Hambantota
There are many more national parks in Sri Lanka. Few others which are not as popular as the ones mentioned above but are worth a visit are Maduru Oya National Park, Lunugamvehera National Park and Pigeon Island National Park.
The entry fees vary for different parks. Entry into Yala, Udawalawe, Horton Plains, Wilpattu and Minneriya National Parks costs Rs. 60 for locals, 15 U.S. Dollars for foreigners and Rs. 40 for locals and 10 U.S. Dollars for foreigners in all other national parks. Please note that the fees may vary depending on the time of entry, type of vehicle, accommodation and age.
Checkout Top 10 Things to do in Sri Lanka