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Where are Sri Lanka’s best wildlife safari destinations?

Chinmay Vasavada By Chinmay Vasavada
10 Mar 2020
Sri Lanka - leopard in national park - iStock.jpg

I recently had the privilege of chatting to one of Sri Lanka’s finest wildlife experts, Ramani Jayewardene, about her views on wildlife conservation in the country and the role and future of sustainable tourism.

For those who love wildlife and nature, Sri Lanka is one of the most diverse and fascinating regions in the world. Where else could one be out in the ocean observing pods of giant whales and playful dolphins one day and venture into lush tropical forests the next day following herds of wild elephants and searching for the elusive leopard?

If you would like to experience this on your holiday to Sri Lanka, one of my favourite ways to get a detailed understanding and have an immersive experience is to spend time with a wildlife expert or marine biologist, who will open up their world to you. One Ramani is one such expert who could bring real depth and meaning to your time in Sri Lanka.


Born and raised in Colombo, Ramani lives and breathes nature and has been involved in wildlife research and conservation for over twenty years. After graduating from Smith College in Massachusetts with a degree in biology, Ramani returned to Sri Lanka and joined the National Aquatic Resources Agency as a researcher specialising in reef systems.

She then went on to work for the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society undertaking cetacean surveys, studying the behaviour and distribution of whales and dolphins in the Bay of Bengal, focusing on the regions around Myanmar, Bangladesh and India. During her distinguished career, she has also undertaken bird distribution surveys in the Knuckles Mountain Range in central Sri Lanka and taught biology and environmental topics to children and young adults.


Since 2012, Ramani has turned her focus onto wildlife and nature tourism with a view to share her passion with like-minded individuals and use the platform to increase awareness regarding conservation issues.

An interview with Ramani Jayewardene:

1. What made you interested in marine biology in particular?

To be honest it was by default. On returning to Sri Lanka having graduated in the USA with a degree in biology the first job that came my way was at the National Aquatic Resources Agency recording corals and fish found on the Bar Reef off the west coast. This carried my interest onto working with Sri Lanka’s pioneer marine mammal’s researcher Anouk Ilangakoon.


2. What is your view on Sri Lanka’s biodiversity? Are there any standout features?   

Despite its small size, Sri Lanka has a rich ecosystem diversity because of its varied topography and climate and being an island, the coastal influence has resulted in its high species diversity and endemism.

3. How did you get involved in tourism?   

My family has been involved in the tourism industry for a long time. My brother is one of the pioneers in tented safari camps, and today “Kulu” is one of the best camps in South Asia (I’m not biased!).


4. Has tourism helped wildlife and nature conservation in Sri Lanka?

Yes and no. It has put Sri Lanka on the map and highlighted its potential as a wildlife destination. 
But on the negative side there are no controls on the number of people visiting ecologically sensitive areas, and the travel trade seems to lack any self-restraint.

5. Which are your top three nature and wildlife experiences in Sri Lanka?

  • Birdwatching in Central Highlands in the Knuckles Mountain Range.
  • Wildlife viewing in the dry zones such as Yala, Wilpattu, Maduroya and Minneriya.
  • Exploring the oceans on the south and east coasts.


6. What is the cultural importance and relevance of nature and wildlife conservation in Sri Lanka?

The world's first sanctuary- Mihintale was created by King Devanampiyatissa in the 3rd century BC when Buddhism was brought to Sri Lanka by the Buddhist monk “Mahinda” who proclaimed that all creatures have an equal right to enjoy life. The elephant has always been considered a sentient being as it is associated with the birth of the Buddha, but the capturing of wild elephants for use by temples needs to be stopped.

Furthermore, the peacock in the southern part of the country is respected as the “Vahan” (celestial vehicle) of Lord Kataragama and the cobra is also venerated and not killed as it is believed to guard relics and also provided refuge to the Buddha.


I recommend that you consider spending some time in Sri Lanka with Ramani, exploring her favourite nature and wildlife regions and learning about her research and findings. I am delighted to suggest a journey along the lines of the below, which is fabulous and showcases the best of Sri Lanka in terms of nature and biodiversity.

Being accompanied by experts such as Ramani truly elevates the travel experience and enhances one’s understanding and appreciation of wildlife conservation. December to April tends to be the best time to visit the west and south coasts, and the hill country. The best time for whale and dolphin watching is during the months of January and February. 


Wilpattu National Park

Upon arrival, you will be driven around 3.5 hours to Wilpattu National Park, Sri Lanka’s largest and prettiest nature reserve. Teeming with leopards, sloth bears, Asian elephants and a variety of smaller mammals as well as rich birdlife, Wilpattu has remained blissfully unspoiled.

Meaning the ‘land of lakes’, Wilpattu covers a vast area of 1,317 square kilometres and has about sixty water bodies within the forest. The safaris are thrilling, as the forest cover is dense and the topography is contrasting, as a large part of the forest used to be under the sea centuries ago.


I recommend staying at the comfortable Leopard Trails Tented Camp for three nights. Spend your days exploring the national park, arising early before sunrise so that you can be out in the cooler morning and see the nocturnal wildlife before it becomes light. After a refreshing lunch, you can return to the national park in the afternoon.

These drives are best taken privately with the lodge’s expert naturalist. A private jeep means you can focus on what you wish to do and seek the wildlife you are most interested in.

Sigiriya and the Cultural Triangle

Next, move to the famous Cultural Triangle region via a short drive lasting around 2.5 hours, during which can visit the UNESCO-inscribed ancient capital of Anuradhapura.


Once you reach your hotel, the luxurious Water Gardens, you can settle into your room and take some refreshments. In the evening, you will be taken on a walking tour looking for fascinating nocturnal animals such as grey slender loris, fishing cat, rusty spotted cat and jungle cat.

I believe that three nights’ stay here gives you a wonderful opportunity to explore the surrounding area fully, and the following morning one an early visit to Polonnaruwa (about 1.5 hours’ drive) is fascinating.


Besides its extraordinary history and impressive ruins, Polonnaruwa is an excellent location for watching primates and has been the base for one of the world’s longest-running primate research studies. With an expert naturalist from the Primate Research Centre, you will explore the area on foot looking for the toque macaque, purple-faced leaf monkey and grey langur.

Later, your driver can take you to explore the 12th century ruins of the ancient city of Polonnaruwa before continuing to Minneriya or Kaudulla National Park, which are great for bird watching and for observing herds of wild Asian elephants.


The next day, rise early and spend the first half of the day exploring lesser-visited Ritigala Forest Monastery, an ancient retreat of Buddhist monks from 1st Century BC. The region is home to a variety of rare species of endemic plants and animals.

In the late afternoon, climb to the top of Sigiriya Rock to explore the ruins of the famous fortress and to take in panoramic views of the surrounding area.


After your exciting climb of ‘the Rock’, I recommend visiting the beautiful countryside of Elkaduwa. Your transfer by car is a scenic journey taking around 3 hours, arriving at the charming colonial era Ashburnham Estate Bungalow where you will spend the next two nights.


The Bungalow is located in a 100-acre working tea estate and you can take the afternoon to explore the lush estate, perhaps hiking to a waterfall where you can enjoy a refreshing dip in the natural rock pool, followed by a delicious picnic afternoon tea. 

Arise early the next morning to hike to the famous Cloud Forest to view endemic birds, animals and plants. This is one of the least-explored and most interesting parts of the country.

Gal Oya National Park

Enjoy a scenic drive to Gal Oya National Park, taking about 4 hours. For the next three nights, you will stay at Gal Oya Lodge, a superb, eco-friendly wilderness resort with its own small onsite research station. Far less frequented in relation to Wilpattu and Yala, this remote region is home to the largest reservoir in the country.

Various excursions are possible to plan during your stay including walks with Veddah people – the last indigenous tribe dating back to the 6th century BC, hilltop hikes, jeep safaris in the national park and boat rides on the massive reservoir where swimming elephants are regularly spotted.


Yala National Park

Drive with your chauffeur to Yala National Park, taking around 3 hours. This is Sri Lanka’s most popular wildlife reserve renowned for excellent leopard sightings. I recommend spending two nights here and Kulu Safari Camp is an excellent choice of accommodation. In the afternoon, enjoy a private jeep safari in the national park, and two private safaris in the park the following day.



After an early breakfast, you will be driven about an hour to Bundala National Park, a renowned wetland sanctuary. Bundala is great for viewing migrant birds, mugger and salt water crocodiles.

Later, you can visit the coastal town of Weligama, where you can enjoy a sumptuous traditional lunch in a beautiful cinnamon plantation before continuing to your luxurious clifftop hotel, Cape Weligama, where you were spend three nights.

From this excellent base you can spend days exploring Galle and the historic Dutch Fort, as well as taking an early morning boat ride with Ramani Jayewardene, an expert marine biologist. Watch whales and dolphins from your private speedboat, hearing all about the marine conservation efforts in Sri Lanka.


For the remainder of the day, take a well-earned opportunity to relax at the hotel and its surrounds. If you still have the energy, why not try surfing? Weligama is a famous surfing destination and there are various spots that are suitable for beginner as well as intermediate levels where private lessons can be arranged.

The following morning you will drive back to Colombo for your international flight home, content in the knowledge that you have experienced a comprehensive and unique wildlife and cultural safari to resplendent Sri Lanka, in the company of experts.

If you would like more information on tailor-made holidays to Sri Lanka in the company of experts, please do feel free to contact me directly or at The Explorations Company.


Images kindly provided courtesy of:

Toby Sinclair (toque macaques), Kulu Camp (leopards on rock, kayaking on water, tent deck, and viewing platform), Leopard Trails (sloth bear, wading birds and bird in tree), The Water Garden (view of Sigiriya Rock), Ramani Jayewardene, Gal Oya Lodge and copyright to Van Seth (background image), Gal Oya Lodge (elephant by river), Resplendent Ceylon (Cape Weligama pool overlooking beach).