SRI LANKA’S NATIONAL PARKS

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2004. Sri Lanka’s National Parks. August-September 2004. Wanderlust. Issue 65. ISSn 1351-4733. Pages 88-89.
A brief overview of the key national parks for wildlife.

Sri Lanka has fifteen National Parks and other reserves under the jurisdiction of the Department of Wildlife Conservation (DWLC) and a number of other forest reserves and sanctuaries under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department (FD). Here, we outline a few of the key sites which visitors should attempt to visit. Distances have been expressed in terms of approximate drive times from the capital Colombo. This is more meaningful than kilometers, as road conditions are highly variable.
Yala or Ruhunu National Park
Yala is located in the south east corner of the island in the lowland dry zone. It is the premier national park of Sri Lanka and arguably one of the best in Asia for mammals. The top draw in Yala is the Sri Lankan Leopard, a sub-species endemic to Sri Lanka. Recent research in Yala shows that in certain areas of Block 1 of the park, the average density is as extraordinarily high as one animal per 1.1 square kilometers. During the fruiting of the Palu Trees (the climax tree species in the area) in June and July, Sloth Bears are often observed. Other animals which visitors have a reasonable chance of seeing include Sambar (a large deer), Spotted Deer, Buffalo, Wild Pig, Stripe-necked & Ruddy Mongoose, Hanuman Langur, Toque Monkey (endemic), Golden Jackal, Indian Palm Civet etc. The park is beautiful with a large stretch of coastline and large rock outcrops. The combination of freshwater and marine habitats, scrub and pockets of densely wooded areas contributes to a high diversity of species of birds. Over two hundred and twenty birds have been recorded and serious birdwatchers have recorded hundred species in a day, during the migrant season. Serious birdwatchers should also consider visits to Bundala National Park (an hour away) or the Palatupana Salt Pans (ten minutes away), especially for migrant shorebirds.
Drive time: six hours. Accommodation: Yala Safari Game Lodge & Yala Village.
Uda Walawe National Park
The park is situated to the south of the central mountains in the southern half of the island. Created to protect the watershed of the enormous Uda Walawe reservoir, the park has extensive stretches of grassland as well as scrub jungle and riverine forest. The park is the best in the whole of Asia was observing Asian Elephants in the wild. Elephants are virtually guaranteed, even with just one game drive. Otherwise, the park is poor for viewing mammals, but birdwatchers will enjoy the presence of raptors such as Changeable Hawk Eagle, Serpent Eagle, White-bellied Sea Eagle, Grey-headed Fish Eagle, etc.
Drive time: four hours. Accommodation: Kinjou Walawe Safari & Centauria Hotel
Wasgomuwa National Park
Wasgomuwa is in the dry lowlands of the North Central Province, a few tens of kilometers to the north of the bio-diversity rich Knuckles Massif. All of the big game is found in Wasgomuwa, but the bear and leopard is elusive. It is however very good for observing family units of elephants, still relatively wild, with unpredictable temperaments.
Drive time: five hours. Accommodation: Wasgomuwa Safari Village, Willy’s Safari & Dunuvila Cottage.

Sinharaja Rainforest
Situated in the wet, southwest of the island, this reserve managed by the Forest Department is the island’s premier rainforest. Over half the trees here are found nowhere else in the world, than Sri Lanka. A key feature here are the mixed species bird flocks, which have been the subject of the longest continuous of such studies. Half a dozen endemic birds maybe in one flock and include species such as Red-faced Malkoha, Green-billed Coucal, Sri Lanka Blue Magpie, etc.
Drive time: five hours. Accommodation: West Coast hotels for day excursions. Martin’s Simple Lodge for backpackers or birders. Boulder Garden in Kalawana is a luxury boutique hotel.
Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks
The two parks are within half an hour’s drive of each other , in the North Central Province, sited around two large reservoirs. Scrub jungle surrounds the lakes and holds many of the mammals of the dry lowlands. But game viewing is generally poor except for the wonderful, seasonal gatherings of elephants. During September and October, the “Gathering” takes place at Minneriya National Park, where over three hundred elephants may gather on the lake bed of the Minneriya Lake, which dries out, creating a lush grassland.
Drive time: five and a half hours. Accommodation: Habarana Village & Habarana Lodge at Habarana and hotels in Polonnaruwa.

Horton Plains National Park
In the central highlands, Horton Plains is the highest plateau in the island, with night time temperatures at times falling to below zero. The cloud forests here are rich in endemic plants and animals. Birds such as the Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush and Sri Lanka 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, to mitigate the effects of low temperatures that would lead to chilling of eggs.
Drive time: five hours. Accommodation: Several hotels in Nuwara Eliya.
Wilpattu National Park
Wilpattu is situated on the north west of the island in the dry lowlands. It has a series of lakes or ‘villus’ with varying degrees of freshness or salinity. The park re-opened in 2003 after nearly fifteen years of closure. Over time, the wildlife should re-gain its former abundance and become more habituated to vehicles. Wilpattu was also famous for its leopards and big cat enthusiasts are hoping that over the years, leopard watching will once again come to the fore in Wilpattu. Together with Yala, Wilpattu is also the best place for a chance to see the Sloth Bear. Other mammals in Wilpattu are similar to Yala but visitors also have a chance of seeing the Muntjac or Barking Deer.
Drive time: four hours. Accommodation: The nearest reasonable accommodation is in Anuradhapura.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (gehan@jetwing.lk) runs a wildlife & luxury travel company and is the author and photographer of a number of publications.

Sri Lanka: Wildlife Facts at a Glance
– Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne
What is special about Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is the best place in Asia to see wild Elephants and Leopards. The presence of the largest terrestrial animal and a top level carnivore such as the Leopard is highly unusual for a relatively small island of 65,000 square kilometers. It has other “Big Game’ safari animals such as Sloth Bear, Jackal, Water Buffalo etc.
The islands’ isolation from the mainland, two diagonally blowing monsoons shedding water into a mountainous core, has created a variation in climate which is normally found only across a continent. The wet lowlands rainforests and the cloud forests in the highlands teem with an endemic bio-diversity found nowhere else in the world.
What to see where
Uda Walawe National Park is the best place in Asia for seeing wild elephants. Yala National Park is your best chance in Asia for seeing Leopard. Yala also has elephants, Sloth Bear, Jackal etc. Serious birdwatchers in search of endemics should visit Sinharaja, Kithulgala and Horton Plains National Park.
Whom shall I book with?
Most tour operator can arrange a visit to the national parks. Serious wildlife enthusiasts should contact a specialist operator like Jetwing Eco Holidays (eco@jetwing.lk, www.jetwingeco.com). Other tour operators are listed in A Photographic Guide to the Birds of Sri Lanka published by New Holland in the UK.
What does it cost?
A tailored Leopard Safari or an expert led Birdwatching Tour will range from GBP 125 plus, per day, per person on a twin share, from a leading specialist company with in-house expertise. A good naturalist guide alone, will cost around GBP 25 a day. Cheaper package tours are available, but you get what you pay for.
Where can I get more information?
www.jetwingeco.com has over 300 pages of information on Sri Lanka’s fauna and flora. Potential visitors can sign up for a monthly Sri Lanka Wildlife e-newsletter by e-mailing gehan@jetwing.lk
What books shall I take?
Oxford University Press and New Holland have guides to the birds of Sri Lanka. Bookshops in Colombo such as ODEL and Lake House Bookshop Hyde Park Corner have books on mammals, butterflies, dragonflies etc.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne (gehan@jetwing.lk) runs a wildlife & luxury travel company and is the author and photographer of a number of publications.