Get out that travel bucket list and take some notes, pupils.
Did you know that Sri Lanka is only the size of West Virginia, but it has one of the world’s highest concentrations of endemic species? It ranks in the top five of biodiversity hotspots for the entire globe.
African countries like Botswana and Tanzania have long been popular travel destinations for wildlife thrill seekers — so you may have already considered planning a once-in-a-lifetime-safari there. But here's something else to consider: While those countries are still excellent options, you should also throw Sri Lanka into the wanderlusting mix if animals are tops on the agenda.
The island nation offers such a concentration in such a small space, your chances of spotting one of the elusive leopards or lightly speckled Asian elephants is incredibly high. Want to snorkel with turtles? That’s an option, but so is snorkeling with blue whales. The decision sounds like a pretty good problem to have when you're planning your day.
Another attraction to Sri Lanka is that excursions can be day trips, meaning you can spend your mornings with elephants and monkeys and your afternoons with crocodiles, and then return to a five-star resort every evening.
There are dozens of great tour operators: Our dream pick is Abercrombie & Kent. The company just added a third, wilderness-meets-luxury, 12-day itinerary in Sri Lanka for 2017. It includes helicopter rides, river cruises, and jeep safaris.
Here’s a primer on the wildlife awaiting you in Sri Lanka... and a little nudge to get you excited about a new and possibly overlooked option for that epic safari you've been mulling.
Sri Lanka is the leopard capital of the world. It’s estimated that in Yala National Park, the population of wild leopards is one cat for every square kilometer.
“Leopards are our main predators in Sri Lanka, and they can be seen in Yala and Wilpattu parks throughout the year,” says tour operator Noel Rodrigo, of Noel Rodrigo’s Leopard Safaris.
“The best time to spot big cats is our dry season — May through October — as many waterholes dry out, forcing the leopards and many other animals to get to specific water holes.” His operation offers game drives twice daily in custom-outfitted Toyota Land Cruisers.
If you want to combine adventure with a luxury hotel instead of staying in a camp, you can book through the Amanwella Resort in Tangalle. This five-star property is situated on a private, untouched beach, only two hours from both Yala National Park and Udawalawe National Park. They are also debuting brand new suites, a new spa and a fitness center in early 2017.
Sri Lanka’s elephants are the darkest of all the Asian elephants, distinctive thanks to bright pink spots speckling their ears, faces, trunks and bellies. The population fell nearly 65-percent in the 19th century, but they are now protected under strict laws. Killing an elephant in Sri Lanka earns the death penalty.
As you drive in remote areas between cities, you’ll notice stands in the tree tops around village farms. The farmers perch in these at night, to make sure the elephants don’t trample or eat the crops. You will find elephants at the largest temples on holy days and you can also book safaris at any of Sri Lanka’s five major national parks to see them in the wild. One of the coolest options is to visit the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, an institution that cares for abandoned baby elephants or those that have been injured in the wild.
The male Toque Macaques will remind you of funny, old men, with their hilariously coiffed hair and boisterous manners. The females in this primate group have brighter, red faces, with splashes of blue, like primordial swabs of eyeshadow, on their lids. The Gray Langurs seem like ancient sages, with their black faces and pensive looks, and the Purple-faced Langur is easily recognizable for its bushy, Santa-like beard. A visit to Sri Lanka absolutely promises to bring you up close and personal with primates. The island is home to five distinct species and dozens of subspecies. You’ll encounter them in the trees outside your resort, in the jungles alongside the freeway, and certainly at temples. The Caves of Dambulla are one of the country’s most famous attractions, thanks to the nearly 200 ancient, golden Buddha statues, paintings, and relics. However, it’s also a prime place to watch primates play.
There are multiple tour operators and excursions to see whales from the Western, Eastern, and Southern coasts of Sri Lanka. The waters of the Indian Ocean are home to Humpbacks and the enormous blue whales, as well as dolphins, a manatee-like animal called the dugong, and various sea turtles. Several tour outfitters even offer you the opportunity to get in the water and snorkel next to giant whales.
The high season for swimming with or watching whales is November to April.
Reptiles are as common in Sri Lanka as the monkeys. In the touristy areas, you’ll meet men holding pythons or coaxing cobras from baskets for a few dollars per snapshot. Booking a tour on the Madu Ganga River, just an hour’s drive from Galle, is an ideal choice for reptile enthusiasts. Aboard sturdy, wooden motor boats, you cruise through thick mangrove tunnels and around islands covered in lush, tropical vegetation. These isles are home not only to the cinnamon farms, but also to hundreds of crocodiles, Asian water monitor lizards, and indigenous snakes. These all offer a bit of a fear factor, but one of the country’s most charming inhabitants is also a reptile. The Sri Lankan chameleon is harmless, shockingly colorful and very-photogenic. It’s likely you’ll meet one or two on your trip. Keep your camera handy.
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