Sign up to our newsletter

Leopards, elephants & monkeys: Sri Lanka for animal lovers

Sri Lanka is home to the most magnificent creatures great and small – here’s how to see them.

Words by Triona McBride

Sri Lanka, the teardrop-shaped island at the southern tip of India is, even today, one of the world’s hidden travel gems for an endless list of reasons but mostly because it is, quite simply, home to a dazzling array of animals. 

Sure, there’s the perfect blend of modernity and history within its towns and the stunning architecture of various religions living harmoniously side-by-side, not forgetting the traditional fishing villages, jaw-dropping rock and cave structures turned into fortresses and temples, rugged coastlines and scenic beaches.

But what becomes most apparent in Sri Lanka, however, almost from the moment of arriving in Colombo, is the diverse and beautiful microcosm of the natural world that lives within its shores.

Travellers looking to dive into a destination where the planet’s most magnificent beasts of both land and sea live wild among human populations, along with a wide array of smaller creatures, should place Sri Lanka high on the top of everyone’s must-visit list.

Of course, the most noticeable inhabitants of Sri Lanka are the largest land mammals the Earth is home to: elephants. Sri Lanka has an estimated 7,500 of these majestic animals roaming free and with protected status throughout the country.

Driving around, keen-eyed observers will see the stilted huts built over fields where farmers keep lookout for approaching elephants which may damage crops or trouble livestock. It’s almost impossible to take a safari through any of the island’s national parks without encountering elephants, often traveling as whole families.

The Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe, established by the Sri Lanka Department of Wildlife Conservation, and supported by the Born Free Foundation, offers visitors a chance to get up close to these gigantic creatures as those found orphaned are rehabilitated ready to return to life in the wild.

For those seeking even bigger beasts, Sri Lanka’s whale watching season runs from November to April during which sperm, minke, and humpback whales can be seen off the coasts of Mirissa and Trincomalee, and that is not all.

The planet’s largest inhabitant, the enormous blue whale, is also a regular visitor to the waters which surround the teardrop isle.

Perhaps the most common critter you’ll come across in all parts of Sri Lanka, from Galle Face Green in Colombo to the low-rise hotels of Habarana or the cave temples of Dambulla, is the island’s native monkeys.

Tufted gray langurs, purple-faced leaf monkeys, and Toque macaques are endemic to the island and are not shy about intermingling with the human world. The official advice is to approach with caution, but you will not pass a day without an incredible monkey photo opportunity.

Lovers of birds, reptiles, and amphibians will not be short of inspiring sights in any of Sri Lanka’s national parks with rich and diverse populations bringing new sights and sounds to every woodland, open space, or lake, but it is one much more elusive resident that Yala National Park is particularly famous for.

Yala is home to one of the densest leopard populations and visitors flock every year to take their chance of spotting one of these beautiful predators. Not everyone is successful, but for those who are, the memories – and IG photos – last forever.

Finally, for those without the time to venture into the parks at the heart of Sri Lanka, its popular South West coast is home to a range of turtle hatcheries helping in the fight to preserve these adorable reptiles which are under constant threat from natural predators and fishing nets.

If the timing is right, visitors can be lucky enough to hatch their own turtle and send it on its journey out into the wild.

With so much to be explored and so many creatures to encounter, while Sri Lanka may be forever in the shadow of safari destinations such as Kenya or South Africa, for true animal and nature lovers, it is somewhere not to be missed.

Set Sail

Spice Route with Celebrity Cruises

Duration: 12 nights

Where: Singapore | Penang, Malaysia | Phuket, Thailand | Hambantota, Sri Lanka | Colombo, Sri Lanka | Cochin, India | Mumbai, India

Ship: Celebrity Millennium

Find out more
Book Cruise
Published 08.26.22