Talk about a small fortune: Although Sri Lanka spans only 25,000 square miles, it shelters Asia’s richest density of mammal, reptile, amphibian and flowering plant species, many of which are found nowhere else on Earth. The tiny, tear-shaped island nation off India’s southeast coast also boasts an immense geographic diversity (coastlines, rain forests, mountains and more), making it a prime spot to spy everything from our planet’s smallest feline (that would be the rusty-spotted cat) to its largest land and sea creatures (elephants and blue whales, we’re looking at you). Which other animals will you see on a Sri Lanka safari—and how can you ensure your visit helps protect those animals and their habitats? Grab your checklist and let’s explore. Better buckle up, though, because it’s about to get wild.
Animals On Land
Let’s start at the top. As the island’s apex predator, “the Sri Lankan leopard rules,” says Toby Sinclair, a regional conservationist and Expedition Leader with Natural Habitat Adventures. And though they’re also famously elusive, the chance of seeing one is high in wildlife-dense Yala National Park.
Asian elephants also make frequent appearances in Yala, along with other protected areas such as Hurulu Forest Reserve, but serendipitous sightings occur, too: “Elephants are part of the Sri Lankan landscape almost wherever you go,” says Sinclair. “It’s quite exciting when you’re traveling around a corner and suddenly there’s a wild elephant in front of you.”
Primates are another star attraction on Sri Lanka safaris. Nocturnal treks set out in search of gray slender lorises, while daytime visits to the ancient city of Polonnaruwa reveal gray langurs plus endemic, purple-faced leaf monkeys and toque macaques among its canopies and 12th-century ruins, setting for numerous wildlife films.
Sloth bears (bonus if you glimpse them giving their cubs a piggyback), jackals, giant squirrels, Asiatic buffaloes, wild boars and mugger crocodiles also make for exciting sightings in Sri Lanka, as do sambar deer, particularly among the vast grasslands of Horton Plains National Park. The reserve also harbors a variety of lizard species, including rare rhino-horned lizards that reside in its cloud forests.
Wildlife At Sea
Ocean-going safaris, particularly from Mirissa Harbor on Sri Lanka’s south coast, offer some of the world’s most consistent blue whale sightings. Fun facts: Rather than migrate, Sri Lanka’s blue whales often reside here year-round (why leave such a warm, pretty place?) and even communicate via a distinct dialect. “The sounds they make are specific to this population,” says marine biologist and Nat Hab Expedition Leader Ramani Jayewardene, “and are very different than other blue whale populations.”
Seeing a blue whale can take your breath away, but be ready, too, for Sri Lanka’s other star cetaceans, including Bryde’s and fin whales, along with bottlenose, spinner and striped dolphins. Five species of sea turtles, including hawksbill and green, can also be found along Sri Lanka’s coastline.
Birds In the Air
Heads up! Some 500 avian species (residents and vacationers) soar through Sri Lanka’s skies, including 33 found only on this island.
A who’s who list of endemics in high-altitude Horton Plains National Park includes the yellow-eared bulbul (known for its long yellow ear tufts), Sri Lanka whistling thrush (sporting bright blue shoulder patches) and Sri Lanka bush warbler (males have red eyes). Birdwatching’s also big in Bundala National Park, one of Sri Lanka’s six Ramsar Sites (Wetlands of International Importance) and a favorite wintering retreat for migratory birds. Here you’ll find visiting flocks of greater flamingoes and petite blue-tailed bee-eaters mingling with year-round residents such as storks and black-winged stilts.
Additional birding capitals include Sigiriya Reserve (watch for Shaheen falcons flying from Lion Rock), Hakgala Nature Reserve (endemics include the Sri Lanka white-eye and scimitar babbler) and Yala National Park (featuring flashy Indian peacocks and Indian rollers). But given Sri Lanka’s avian bounty, count on seeing beautiful birds wherever you go. And speaking of frequent sightings: Look for the island’s iconic national bird, the Sri Lanka junglefowl, on postage stamps and in the flesh in most of its climatic zones.
Conservation Is Key
Sri Lanka is one of 36 global biodiversity hotspots—meaning it’s not only bio-rich but imperiled by deforestation, human-wildlife conflict and similar threats. Sadly, many of Sri Lanka’s animals—including leopards, elephants, sloth bears and blue whales—currently appear on IUCN’s Red List of endangered and vulnerable species. There’s reason for hope, however: The “Pearl of the Indian Ocean” is home to more than 500 protected areas and claims a long history of conservation, starting with one of the world’s first wildlife sanctuaries, founded in 247 B.C.E. following the arrival of Buddhism on the island. More good news: Today’s travelers hoping to commune with Sri Lankan animals can opt for eco-conscious trips such as Nat Hab’s Sri Lanka Wildlife & Cultural Treasures tour, which aims to support local conservation efforts, create sustainable jobs and help keep Sri Lanka forever wild.