Sri Lanka is a paradise for wildlife lovers and offers several great parks to observe leopards and elephants in the wild, as well as excellent birdwatching opportunities.
Why Wilpattu National Park?
While Yala West National Park is Sri Lanka’s most famous park, Wilpattu National Park is known for a high Sri Lankan leopard population, Sri Lankan sloth bears, and Sri Lankan elephants. The park is also a top birdwatching destination, home to Lesser Adjutants, Spoonbills, Shikras, Painted Storks, Crested Hawk Eagles, and several other species of birds.
We decided to visit Wilpattu, whose name is formed of “Will” – lakes in Sinhala, and “Pattu” – 10 in Tamil, aptly describing the landscape of forests patches with lakes. Not only the park was closer to our location in Kalpitiya, but it is less visited than Yala. Partly because of its remote location away from the traditional tourist path, but also due to the smaller chance of animal sightings. Wilpattu is indeed much larger than Yala, and only 25% of the park is open to visitors. Yala’s smaller size allows for a higher wildlife concentration, with more sightings of animals, but also of jeeps and tourists at the same time and place.
We went for a morning tour and departed Kalpitiya by boat at 6 am. The ride across Dutch Bay took us about 30 minutes, a smooth ride over calm waters while we watched the sunrise. We reached a local eco-lodge where we met our driver and guide Binura. We were pleased to see we were the only ones in the jeep. The perfect condition for a wildlife safari.
Another 30-min ride on dirt roads took us to the park entrance. Our guide took care of the tickets, and soon we were driving and searching for wildlife.
Sri Lankan Elephants
We saw our first herd of elephants in the open clearing almost immediately after. They were a bit far, but we could not believe we just arrived and found elephants right away.
We got even more excited as our guide pointed to a larger male with two large tusks further up the road. Binura stressed that elephants with tusks were a rare sight, so we were quite excited about this. We drove closer and stopped for a while to admire the gentle giant swinging his trunk left and right, pulling and eating grass as he went.
Birdwatching at Wilpattu Wilas
Binura pushed the jeep deeper into the park, driving by lakes, dry woodlands, sandy patches, open fields, and thick forests. Each lake was filled with birds – little and great cormorants, different types of egrets and herons, white ibis, sandpipers….
First Sri Lankan Leopard Encounter
We were of course in search of the famous leopard. As we were leaving the Panikkar Wila (or Wilu, lake in English), several wild pigs sped away, running for their lives. And a loud roar. We all froze. We searched the woods, but the high density made it hard for us to see anything. Until a large form became visible at the edge of the forest.
Moving along, the big cat made his way out the trees and onto the path. This happened very fast, but we did glance at a leopard! Wilpattu did not fail us! Though we did not get a great view of the infamous wild cat, we were thrilled.
Second Leopard Encounter
Let alone did we know that soon after, we would see another leopard. This time the animal was perched high on a tree, lazily resting and barely paying attention to us. Sometimes moving its tail. Sometimes lifting the head, listening to a far away sound. Mostly just laying there in perfect peace.
We stopped there, close to the Thala Wila area, for a long while, enjoying the opportunity to watch the animal relatively close without bothering it. Our Jeep, as well as another, were the only two vehicles present, alone on the narrow sandy path of the thick forest. This made for a rather intense experience, feeling alone in the jungle.
First Leopard Encounter – Take Two!
As we finally left this spot, we retrieved our way to the Panika Villa. Suddenly a leopard jumped in front of the jeep, dragging a small white animal in its wake. It quickly disappeared into the trees, but we decided to stop and wait. Given we had already seen that leopard at the same location not long ago, the chances of seeing it again were high.
Our patience paid off, as the leopard soon returned. And then we were treated to the best five minutes of our trip. The leopard walked around, checking trees, sniffing the ground, looking up at the treetops here and there. Going left, going right, coming toward us, moving back.
A few times it looked straight at us, making me feel so small. I was hoping the leopard wasn’t considering us as a tasty option for its lunch.
Alone for the whole time, Bruno and I were both mesmerized by the scene in front of us. The leopard moved deeper into the wood, and we could hear cracking sounds, probably as he fed on its dead prey. Being able to see the wild animal was incredibly lucky, seeing two was imaginable, but seeing one hunting and moving around was a lifetime experience.
And because you should always look up like our leopard did, we spotted that Crested-Hawk Eagle just above our jeep…
Third Leopard Encounter
And because it was the luckiest of the luckiest day, we stumbled on another leopard on another tree deep in the dark vegetation, hidden behind thick foliage. We initially thought it was the same one we saw earlier on, but our guide confirmed it was another one. In fact, Bruno briefly saw another leopard going down the tree, which made us realized two leopards had been relaxing there a moment ago. The remaining cat displayed the same lazy behavior, though this time it kept moving on the branch. Standing up, turning, stretching. We could not believe our eyes.
Observation Treehouse by Nelum Wila
We continued our circuit around the park and made our way to Nelum Wila and its treehouse, an observation platform. The lake is teeming with birds, and the settings with the trees were beautiful and peaceful.
A viewing platform is built high up a tree, that is somewhat rotten but seemed ok when Bruno climbed the metal ladder. Of course, this is at your own risk so while he went up to check out the view, I stayed behind as I was not feeling confident enough and did not think it might be sturdy enough. But Bruno was braver than me and enjoyed his time perched high up from the ground.
Wilpattu National Park – Thick Forest, Sand, and Lakes
We drove back on the same sandy road, passing through thick forests, defined as jungle locally. It is worth mentioning that most of the ride is done among these dense vegetations. This limits the visibility, though this is of course prime leopard territories, so better keep your eyes open!
Wildlife of Wilpattu National Park
The rest of the morning flew by quickly. We saw barking deer, iguanas, hawk eagles, painted storks, Lesser Adjutants, and Brahmani kites as we headed to the exit. We did not get to see the elusive Sri Lankan Sloth Bears – for another time!
We did see monkeys as well – purple-faced leaf monkeys that disappeared quickly in the forest, and grey langurs that hung by the side of the road, not shy at all.
The morning safaris have to be out the park by 11:30 am so our driver kept a fast pace on the way back. When I asked him why, he said these were park regulations with late drivers potentially fined if they overstay their time.
As we parted from our guide, Binura could not believe how lucky we had been to see three different leopards, even Bruno getting a glimpse at a fourth one. He was excited for us, which says something given he gets in the park regularly.
Boat Ride through Mangroves and Dutch Bay
Our boat was waiting for us, and we headed out the backwaters towards Dutch Bay. Our guide had told us that sometimes elephants crossed the rivers, so we were keeping an eye out. Wouldn’t have been another lucky moment?
The captain of our boat took us next to see “Ali Gaha,” or the Elephant Tree. The tree is a giant baobab of many centuries old. Its wrinkled skin looks like elephant skin, hence the name. Though the tree itself is not necessarily much to see, though yes it is rather large, the boat ride through the green mangroves and small fishing villages make it worthwhile visiting.
When to Go
Though the park is open all year-round, it is best to travel between February and October.
How to Get to Wilpattu National Park
- Overland to the Hunuwilgama Entrance: you can access the park by minivan or private car. The ride takes about 4 hours from Colombo or 1 ½ hours from Kalpitiya.
- By Boat from Kalpitiya: This is the fastest option, and allows to discover Dutch Bay and the mangroves on the shores. Note that the return ride might be rough due to swells on Dutch Bay created by the afternoon winds.
Park Information & Tips
- The park is open from 6 am to 6 pm.
- Not private cars can go inside – only jeeps. Sections of the road are through deep sand, and even 4WDs can struggle. We wished our jeep cover was a bit higher – we had to bend our necks to see under the rolled sides, and we saw many other jeeps with taller roofs that made viewing easier.
- Choose between morning, afternoon, or full-day safari packages.
- Even if we were incredibly lucky to see three leopards during our morning safari, this is highly unusual. During our stay at Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, we did not get to see one tiger during three half-day safaris. For that reason, we recommend at least a full-day package, which will give you more time to explore. If you can only go for half a day, go for the morning as this increases the chance of seeing animals in the cooler hours.
- Even if the park is not as highly visited as Yala, the remoteness also limits the numbers of jeep available. Make sure to book your seats in the high season. Your hotel or local travel agency should be able to help you out. We booked our tour through our lodging, Valampuri Resort in Kalpitiya.
- Bring water and snacks as there is no food available anywhere close to the park. If you book a full-day, make sure lunch is provided or bring your own.
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