Wilpattu National Park Safari Guide, Sri Lanka 2024

Don’t leave Sri Lanka without seeing the island’s amazing wildlife! Our guide to Wilpattu National Park safari will help you plan your wild Sri Lankan adventure.

Taking up almost 2% of Sri Lanka’s land area, Wilpattu is the largest National Park in Sri Lanka. The park is located in the dry climatic zone on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka. It lies 35 km west of the ancient city of Anuradhapura and 200km north of Colombo International Airport.

The park’s most distinct feature is the shallow lakes that fill with rain during the monsoon and then slowly dry out throughout the dry season. These lakes attract the park’s abundant wildlife, from elephants, sloth bears, and leopards to storks, hornbills and kingfishers. A Wilpattu National Park safari is the perfect opportunity to see an abundance of Sri Lanka’s amazing wildlife.

Why Choose Wilpattu National Park Safari?

Sri Lanka is home to many popular National Parks. You may have heard about Yala, which has the highest density of leopards in the world, or Udawalawe and Minneria, which are famous for their elephants. So why choose Wilpattu?

Wilpattu National Park safari - bee-eaters
Green bee-eaters

Wilpattu has a lot going for it. For starters, it’s one of the least crowded national parks in Sri Lanka. It is home to the second-highest population of leopards in Sri Lanka. It is the best place in Sri Lanka for spotting sloth bears. Elephants are not as abundant in Wilpattu as in some other parks, but you are highly likely to see them in the park, particularly around the lakes.

So not only is Wilpattu an excellent place to see many of Sri Lanka’s iconic animals, but you can also avoid the mind-blowing crowds of the more popular national parks.

Udawalawe, for example, allows up to 500 jeeps to enter the park each morning. You’ll literally see more jeeps than animals. Wilpattu is more regulated. While you still can get a Jeep frenzy when leopards or bears are spotted, it’s not as chaotic as Yala, where dozens of jeeps converge on leopards.

How to Plan Wilpattu National Park Safari

As with most National Parks in Sri Lanka, the most sensible way to visit Wilpattu is on an organised safari.

Technically, you can drive to the park’s gate yourself, and there is a chance that you might be able to arrange a safari on the spot with one of the drivers hanging around at the park’s headquarters. But this is too unreliable, and you are not allowed to take your own vehicle into the National Park. I wouldn’t recommend this option if you are serious about going on a safari in Wilpattu.

Wilpattu National Park Safari Tours

Organised safaris to Wilpattu National Park are available from many popular tourist destinations in Sri Lanka as a long day trip. The main thing to consider is how early you want your day to start.

If you are a serious wildlife-watcher, the best option is to stay in the Wilpattu area and book a full-day safari that starts at 6 am, just as the park opens (and ends at 6 pm when the park closes). Early morning and late afternoon are the best times for spotting animals, and by turning up at the park gate at 6 am, you’ll also avoid long entrance queues.

Another good base for a Wilpattu National Park Safari is Anuradhapura. It’s about a 40-minute drive to the park from Anuradhapura, so your Wilpattu safari from Anuradhapura will start with a 5.30 am pick-up.

If you are short on time, you can still do a full-day safari in Wilpattu, departing from Colombo, Negombo, Kandy, Sigiriya, Dambulla, Trincomalee, and Habarana, it’s just going to be a long day. Your pick-up will be around 4 am (depending on the departure point), and you will get to Wilpattu by around 7 am.

Whichever option you choose, your safari will include all meals, bottled water, and, of course, a Jeep and a driver.

How to get to Wilpattu National Park

The easiest way to get to Wilpattu is by car, either a rental car or a private transfer from any major city in Sri Lanka or from Colombo airport.

To reach the park by public transport, make your way to Anuradhapura, just under 40 km from Wilpattu. Anuradhapura is connected by trains and buses to all major cities in Sri Lanka. From Anuradhapura, you can take either a bus, a tuk tuk or a taxi to the park.

Where to Stay for Wilpattu Safari

In Wilpattu area: If you want comfort and convenience, consider Ceylon Resort Wilpattu. This beautiful resort is located a stone’s throw from the park entrance, and you can arrange a full-day or half-day safari and transfer from either Anuradhapura or Colombo. For a mid-range option, there is the lovely Green Sapphire Holiday Resort. They can also organize transfers.

In Anuradhapura: For an upmarket hotel, consider Aracchi Heritage. If you prefer the authenticity of a homestay, Ceylonima Homestay is the most popular. It has a beautiful garden, and the host will pick you up from the train station.

Best Time to Visit Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu National Park can be visited throughout the year. The wildlife-watching opportunities are best during the dry season between May and early September. As the water sources dry out, the wildlife congregates around the remaining lakes, which makes them easier to observe.

September to December is the rainy season, which makes for greener vegetation and muddier roads. March and April can also be quite rainy but not as wet as the rainy season.

Wilpattu National Park Wildlife

Crested serpent eagle in wilpattu national park
Crested Serpent eagle

Wilpattu is home to 41 species of mammals, including four endemic species that occur only in Sri Lanka: the Toque macaque, Sri Lanka golden palm civet, Sri Lankan spotted chevrotain – a species of Mouse Deer, and the endangered Purple-faced langur.

A total of 149 bird species have been recorded in the park, including several endemic species: Gray hornbill, Brown-capped babbler, Crimsonfronted barbet and the Sri Lanka junglefowl.

The amphibians and reptiles are represented in the park by 17 species, including the Marsh or Mugger crocodile.

Top 5 Animals to See on Safari in Willattu

Sloth Bear

Wilpattu National Park safari - sloth bear
Sloth Bear

Wilpattu is known as the best place in Sri Lanka for spotting Sloth Bears. The small furry bears feed primarily on termites and berries and can be spotted ambling around the park, particularly early in the morning.

Sri Lankan Leopard

Sri Lankan safari - leopard in Wilpattu National Park
Sri Lankan leopard

Sri Lankan leopard is the biggest leopard subspecies in the world and Wilpattu is home to about 40 of these magnificent cats. You will likely encounter them throughout the day, often resting in the shade around the lakes and wetland areas.

Sri Lankan Elephant

Sri Lankan safari - elephant gathering in Kaudulla National Park
Sri Lankan Elephants

Sri Lankan elephants are the largest (up to 3.5 meters tall) and also the darkest of all Asian elephants. They are not as easy to see in Wilpattu as in Kadulla and Minneria National Parks, but the Jeep drivers make a special effort to locate an elephant during the safari. Maradanmaduwa tank is usually a good place to see them.

Toque Macaque

Things to do in Sigiriya - see Toque Macaques at the Lion Rock, Sigiriya
Toque Macaques

These odd-looking macaques, with their funky hairdos, are endemic to Sri Lanka. They are not as unfazed by humans in Wilpattu as in Sigiriya, but they may still come up pretty close to see if you’ve got any sugary drinks they can snatch.

Sri Lanka Junglefowl

Wilpattu National Park safari - Sri Lankan junglefowl
Sri Lankan junglefowl

Sri Lanka’s most famous endemic bird is the Sri Lankan Junglefowl. It is closely related to the domestic chicken, so don’t be surprised by the resemblance. The roosters are fun to see – their exceptionally bright plumage stands out starkly against the muted background of dry vegetation.

Painted stork

Sri Lankan safari - Painted stork on Wilpattu National Park Safari
Painted Stork

Painted stork is not endemic to Sri Lanka, but it is an impressive bird to see, especially in flight. You can see breeding colonies of these storks around the park, particularly at Maradanmaduwa tank.

Our Experience on Wilpattu National Park Safari

sloth bears seen on Wilpattu National Park safari

We visited Wilpattu as part of our two-week Sri Lankan safari, and to make the most of visiting the park, we based ourselves in the Wilpattu area for a full-day safari in the park.

Our Wilpattu National Park safari started with a 5.45 am pick-up from our hotel for a short drive to the park. We arrived at the park’s gate just before 6 am and were one of the first cars to enter the park.

Minutes into our safari, we encountered a Sloth bear ambling towards a small lake for a drink. He took a long drink from the pond, and as he was about to saunter into the forest, another sloth bear appeared. Another male. A younger individual, by the looks of it.

Sri Lankan safari - sloth bear in Wilpattu National Park

By this point, dozens of jeeps were gathered around the bears in a constantly shifting milieu as each driver tried to take an advantageous position for his guests. Thankfully, the bears were too intent on sorting out their differences to be bothered by the jeeps.

The older bear chased the younger one across the road, but the youngster wasn’t ready to give up. He sat upright next to a tree and, for a while, just sat there, staring dejectedly at the tree’s trunk.

We thought this was the end of the argument, but after a few minutes, the older bear weaved between all the parked jeeps to approach the youngster, and the two bears faced off, posturing and squealing like old ladies until the younger bear finally retreated into the forest.

Sri Lankan safari - sloth beard fighting in Wilpattu National Park safari

The rest of our 12-hour safari proceeded in a much less dramatic manner, yet we saw an incredible variety of animals. I was desperately hoping to see a leopard. Sri Lankan leopards are the largest subspecies of leopards on earth. But we also didn’t want to be part of the chaotic crowds that gather around bears leopards and asked our driver not to follow other cars but to take any other road.

As we drove around the park, we saw Spotted deerBarking deerSambar deerToque macaques and Grey langursPeacocksbee-eaters, the endemic Jungle fowlparakeets, and a Malabar pied hornbill.

Sri Lankan safari - grey langurs in Sigiriya
Grey langurs

During the hottest part of the day, most jeeps came back to the central area of the park to have our ‘picnic lunch’ in enclosed huts while Grey langurs lounged on all the parked jeeps outside as if they were the ones on safari.

In the afternoon, we were tipped off by another driver that a leopard had been sighted. Thankfully it was quite far from the centre of the park, so there were only a few jeeps around the site. Our first leopard was quite distant. It was resting under a tree on the other side of a dried-out lake. August is the peak of the dry season in Wilpattu, and most water sources in the park have already dried up.

Leopard in Wilpattu national park

We stayed with the leopard for about half an hour, hoping he might come out into the open, but he eventually chose to move deeper into the forest.

Malabar paid hornbill in Wilpattu national park safari
Malabar pied hornbill

Our second leopard sighting was of a young female. She was much closer but very well concealed in a thick patch of vegetation. We stayed with her for a while as well until she slunk off into the thickets.

In the late afternoon, our sightings picked up again when we spotted a Sri Lankan elephant feeding on aquatic vegetation while semi-submerged in one of the lakes.

Sri Lankan elephant in Wilpattu national park
Sri Lankan elephant
Sri Lankan safari - water buffalo in Wilpattu National Park
Water buffalo

The lake turned out to be a very fruitful spot. A tree right at the water’s edge was covered with dozens of Painted storks’ shaggy nests. So we watched the birds come and go as they brought food for their fluffy young.

Wilpattu safari - white-throated kingfisher
White-throated Kingfisher

Out in the shallows, water buffalo were working out their differences, with males fighting and chasing each other through the water. Kingfishers of several species were busy fishing from their perches on dead branches protruding from the lake.

common kingfisher in Wilpattu National Park
Common Kingfisher

At one point, a large hawk-eagle landed at the edge of the lake, took a long drink and splashed in the water to cool off, wearily eyeing off a Marsh crocodile snoozing on a sand bar.

Sri Lankan safari - hawk eagle in Wilpattu national park safari
Marsh crocodile in Wilpattu National Park
Marsh crocodile, or Mugger

Driving back from the lake, we watched three beautiful Golden Jackals trot across the road. And just a few kilometres later, we came across a female Grey Indian mongoose with a young running along the road and then scurrying off into the undergrowth.

Safari in Sri Lanka - golden jackal in Wilpattu National Park safari
Golden jackal
Sri Lankan safari - gray indian mongoose in Wilpattu National Park
Female Grey Indian mongoose

And there you have it. This guide gives you a taste of what to expect from a safari in Wilpattu National Park and how to arrange your own adventure. If you are looking for more opportunities for nature adventures in Sri Lanka, check out some of the posts below.

More Nature Adventures in Sri Lanka

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