Sri Lanka Leopard Safari – 3 things I wish I had known before booking

(1) Yala national park is not the only place to see Leopards

There is so much written online and in books about Yala national park being the best place to see Leopards in Sri Lanka, that you would easily believe this is the only place to see these beautiful felines, but that is far from the case. In fact, when we first took a Sri Lanka wildlife holiday way back in 2002, we saw our first wild leopard in Uda Walawe national park, which is much more famous for wild elephants, yet has extensive habitat that is perfect for female leopards to bring up their cubs.

One of the best places to see leopards in Sri Lanka is actually Wilpattu national park on the east coast of this beautiful island and only a 4 to 5 hour drive north from the capital Colombo. Yes, it is true to say that some of the leopard habitat here is dense forest and maybe sightings are not out in the open as much as Yala. However, you will encounter far less jeeps in Wilpattu so if you are looking for a leopard safari away from the crowds then Wilpattu national park is definitely for you.

The location in Sri Lanka not as well known for big cats but which is home to a sub species – called the Mountain Leopard – is the beautiful, misty plains and hills of Hortons Plains national park, close to Nuwara Eliya in the famous Sri Lanka hill country. Most visitors come here for hiking to the famous World’s End viewpoint with little knowledge that just a few hundred meters from the trail could be leopard stalking the extensive herds of Sambar deer. The mountain leopards are slightly larger and have thicker coats to deal with the subzero temperatures which you get at 2000M altitude.

(2) Never visit Yala national park for a leopard safari from the Tissa gate

It is sad to report that the Sri Lanka authorities – certainly before the pandemic – were hell bent on maximizing the amount of money they could get from unrestricted visitor numbers to Yala. This, along with the fact that so many hotels and ‘wildlife lodges’ have been built on this side of the park and with the influence of the hugely powerful ‘jeep mafia’ – who own all the safari vehicles – has led to a completely unsustainable number of daily visitors to one of the most beautiful wildlife sanctuaries in Asia – we saw it with our own eyes develop over the years and it was truly sad and awful to witness.

They even built a ferry terminal at Hambantota which disgorged thousands of day trippers into the park for a ‘one drive selfie opportunity’ with wild leopards……….or a snap of wild elephants if they were unlucky – depressing. All this led to a severe deterioration in driving standards and guiding, as 95% of visitors were only interested in a rushed safari ‘chasing leopards’ and they put pressure on the drivers to do that. We have not sent any of our clients into Yala national park from the Tissa side for many years and have found two excellent alternatives away from this madness – check out our Sri Lanka leopard safaris here

Sleepy Leopard photographed at Yala national park

(3) Always ask what type of vehicle you will be in and pay extra for a top naturalist guide who is fluent in your given language.

If you have been on a big cat safari in Africa or a tiger safari in India, you will be very familiar with the type of vehicles provided for wildlife photography. In general, they are open in design with low slung seating areas allowing close to eye level photography of your subject – especially if your expert driver uses the geography of the land. Things are a little different in Sri Lanka due to its position close to the equator there are chances of heavy – generally short – showers at any time of the year and this means nearly all vehicles you will see in the park have solid roofs. This is not necessarily a bad thing depending on how the sides are designed for the three rows of seats which are normally provided behind the driver and naturalist. Naturally there are often metal protective bars, or sometimes arm rests, but choose the wrong vehicle and you might find a very limited ‘shooting area’ for your camera and that could be the difference between you getting that dream leopard shot or not.

At Wildlife Trails we always include the cost of an expert naturalist guide accompanying our guests for the leopard safari in Sri Lanka, so this is never something you have to worry about. However, that is not always true for direct bookings with local agents or local camps as they will have different quality of vehicles and different quality of guides – some who may speak English/Spanish/French – depending on how much you pay. Believe me taking shortcuts or always looking for the cheapest price will not give you that Sri Lanka wildlife holiday you were dreaming about, but lots of headaches and dissatisfaction. A true naturalist will actively track and use their all their senses to find wildlife, while explaining all about the national park and its various animals and plants, as they guide you through the network of roads.

To conclude, if you want to know the best places to see leopards in Sri Lanka without all the crowds then Wildlife Trails are the company for you. Please give Allan a call on +44 1946 841495 or email him at asia(at)wildlifetrails.co.uk to discuss either a bespoke Sri Lanka leopard safari, or joining one of our small group tours in 2023; neither of which visit Yala national park from the Tissa side of the sanctuary. For next year, we have our ultimate 4 wild cats of Sri Lanka wildlife holiday, as well as a groundbreaking wild camping leopard safari in Kumana national park. We look forward to hearing from you soon and designing a Sri Lanka wildlife safari for you and your loved ones.