Animal lovers, take note—Sri Lanka is home to some of the most incredible displays of wildlife you’ll see in your world travels. Our expert expedition leader, Mark Brazil, is no stranger to this dramatic landscape with its elephants, leopards, spotted deer, sloth bears, wild buffaloes, and over 200 species of bird. In fact, Sri Lanka is one of the world’s top five biodiversity hotspots! Before you go, get the low-down on the country’s three most popular national parks, each a glorious display of untouched, unfettered fauna.
Yala National Park
It’s not going to be long before you spot your first leopard, here in a land of forests, scrubs, grasslands, and lagoons. Just two of five blocks of protected area are open to visitors, who in their leopard-searching may also spot an Asian elephant or spotted deer or two. Set your sights on the Panthera pardus kotiya, the country’s most majestic leopard. Yala is also home to important historical sites, including the Monastic settlement of Sithulpawwa, an ancient pilgrim site that housed 12,000 people around 2,000 years ago, when Sri Lankan kings presided over a thriving civilization. Sri Lanka’s agri-based past is evident in the large tanks and reservoirs seen throughout the landscape that give much-needed hydration to the animal kingdom.
Bundala National Park
Close to Yala, Bundala National Park is less often visited yet offers just as much wildlife appeal. Birds from as far away as Siberia spend the warmer months here and are neighbors with almost 200 other bird species, and it’s the winter residence of the greater flamingo. December is the best time to spot elephants and big crocs, whereas the large population of marine turtles makes its appearance between October and January when they lay their eggs along the coastline. The park is comprised of waterways, lagoons, and glittery sand dunes and stretches from Kirinda to Hambantota.
Horton Plains National Park / World’s End
Almost eerily, yet reverentially quiet, and boasting an incredibly diverse landscape, Horton Plains is a must for hikers and for those who want to add the intriguingly named “World’s End” to their travel list. Kirigalpotta and Totapola, the country’s second and third largest mountains, provide ample trekking opportunities. Then make your way across the plains, covered in grasslands, glassy lakes, and thick forests, to the sudden precipice that plunges 2,880 feet to the verdant valley below. If you can arrive at the escarpment between 6 and 10am, you’re in luck—it’s the best time to visit before the later clouds roll in and mar the otherwise glorious view. Dress in layers and be sure to take a sunhat!
While in this region, keep your eyes trained for more leopards, sambar deer, wild boar, and shaggy bear monkey (otherwise known as the purple-faced langur)—it makes a wheezy grunt, which you’ll likely hear before you see it. Gaze skyward to glimpse the ceylon blue magpie, mountain hawk-eagle, and yellow-eared bubul.