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This is why you should take your Sri Lanka Leopard safari in Wilpattu and not Yala this year

Posted in: Sri-Lanka


This is why you should take your Sri Lanka Leopard safari in Wilpattu and not Yala this year

Before the horrendous civil war that ripped Sri Lanka apart and both humans and wildlife paid a heavy price; there was a beautiful national park in the North East of the country, where huge male Leopards roamed. Travellers were able to stay inside the park in government bungalows and fall to sleep at night to the sounds of a jungle paradise. All wildlife photographers knew that a leopard safari in Wilpattu national park would be successful and if you wanted to see elephants, you made the much longer drive from Colombo to Yala national park.

How did Wilpattu and Yala emerge from the civil war with the Tamil Tigers?

The Tamil Tigers actually set up military camps in both Wilpattu and Yala, but they stayed longer in Wilpattu and overall this had a bigger impact on the park. This is not just a case of the damage done by poaching inside the park – poaching always thrives during periods of instability and conflict – but more a consequence of the security situation in Wilpattu; which meant neither tourists or researchers were able to visit the park for many years. Tourism came back to Yala national park much faster and thanks to investment from Sri Lanka companies such as Jetwing; good quality hotels and facilities were set up in the early 2000’s to provide a genuine Sri Lanka leopard safari experience for local Sri Lankans and foreign visitors alike. Jetwing even sponsored a husband and wife scientific team to monitor leopard numbers in Yala and soon international wildlife photographers realised that Yala was the best place to see Leopards in Asia. Sadly, during this period Wilpattu was the forgotten ‘poor relative’; left in the darkness and struggling to find a path back to the light.

How Wilpattu national park rose from the ashes and became great again?

Thankfully the civil war came to an end in 2009 – although not without a heavy price being paid. The first job for the park authorities and researchers at Wilpattu, was to clear any left over land mines, repair the roads and park ranger facilities and ensure the park was safe for returning visitors. What happened when the leopard safaris in Wilpattu restarted; was that initially the apex species, such as Sloth Bears and Leopards were shy of the vehicles. It takes time for Sri Lankan wildlife to become ‘habituated’ to the regular game drives and feel comfortable with the jeeps carrying wildlife photographers and wildlife enthusiasts.

Less crowds and incredibly beautiful – the Wilpattu national park experience!

As well as being only a 4 hour drive from Colombo, the coastal scenery for the last 2 hours of the drive – as well as the many pretty rural villages you pass through – makes for an exciting and culturally interesting road trip. Since the national park authorities banned camping safaris in Yala national park and Wilpattu, local entrepreneurs have been looking for new interesting ways to create an ethical wildlife tourism product that fits in with the leopard safari experience in Sri Lanka. When we visited in May 2017, we stayed in a rural camp overlooking a lake and ate local Sri Lankan cuisine – most of it sourced from local markets – which was tailored to our requirements; such as spice level, meat preferences and light or heavy meals. This works perfectly for our small group wildlife safari in Sri Lanka and both couples commented on the quality and taste of the local cuisine. BIG COMPLIMENTS to the chef and his staff.

Wilpattu National Park – Sloth Bears in abundance and beautiful shy Leopards!

As you enter Wilpattu on your first Leopard safari, you are struck by the beauty and density of forest you past through. Which means that your best chance of a leopard sighting is likely to be at one of the several water holes inside the park, so where the thick forest gives way to huge, open coastal lagoons. Not only are these areas very picturesque, they also allow your naturalist to scan large areas of the park, as he looks for Asian Elephants, Sloth Bear and Leopards.
As soon as the park receives a small amount of rain – don’t worry the jeeps have roofs – the Sloth Bears come out in force for ‘easy access’ to the termites and other grubs in the now soft ground. After a short shower during our afternoon safari, we saw 4 different sloth bears as we drove back to the entrance gate. The bears seemed almost oblivious to our presence and continued to cross the road from side to side in search of food. We kept a respectful distance and managed to get some beautiful photos of these charismatic and ‘busy’ bears.

We also enjoyed two leopard sightings; but on this occasion they decided to stay deep in the forest and not present us with an open photographic opportunity. However, throughout our two full days in Wilpattu (we took packed lunches to enjoy full day safaris!) we only saw two other vehicles and it was like enjoying a leopard safari in Sri Lanka in our own private park – pretty special.

I want to go to Wilpattu National Park; but what else can I add on?

The simple answer is lots of amazing Sri Lanka wildlife and cultural experiences that will live long in the memory. To start with Wilpattu is very close to the stunning peninsula of Kalpitiya; where with a bit of luck you can see hundreds of Spinner Dolphins and the mighty Sperm Whale – the third largest whale in the world. Check out our 16 day Dolphin, Leopard and Elephant wildlife special. After Kalpitiya and Wilpattu, it is easy to drive north west and enjoy the spectacular Sri Lanka cultural triangle; with visits to Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and Sigiriya.

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