Tiger and Leopard Safari in India and Sri Lanka – Which Parks to Visit?

Sri Lanka Safari – which to choose, Wilpattu or Yala?

Sadly when we first visited Sri Lanka back in 2002, the civil war that had torn the country apart for decades was still very much ongoing and national parks and wildlife sanctuaries in the North of the island were very much off-limits. While travelling around Sri Lanka I spoke directly with naturalists and leopard researchers who told be about the ‘golden days’ of Wilpattu national park; when it was the ‘go to’ place for seeing the biggest leopards in Asia. Yala national park they scoffed was just a place to see a few elephant and have a picnic, Wilpattu was the true star and it was here that photographers came on their Sri Lanka leopard safaris.

Wilpattu National Park – From War Zone to Wild Leopards as nature recovers!

Wilpattu is Sri Lanka’s oldest and largest national park, famous for its leopards, Villus (water bodies) and infamous for the militants who used this park as a base to launch their attacks. I remember being horrified to hear a few years after my first visit that a tourist jeep had hit a land mine inside the park and killed most of the occupants. You can expect many things on a leopard safari in Sri Lanka but surely not to lose your own life.

The longer the conflict went on the more damage to the wildlife; although that in itself is hard to judge because there was a complete lack of information from researchers of tourists for many, many years. However the general consensus – even after the conflict ended in 209 – was that Wilpattu would take a generation to recover. Infact, yet again, we have seen the resilience of nature come to the fore and a quite astonishing return to the glory days of its past. As many of you will know, the health of an eco-system can often be judged by the number of its Apex Predators and the increasing sightings of leopards in Wilpattu shows there is now a decent prey base for this big cat to thrive.

In the last few years wildlife photographers and leopard lovers have returned to Wilpattu. It is still far from attracted the number of tourists which Yala does year round, but in a way that is a good thing, It also makes its ‘come back’ at a time when there is a lot more focus on the quality of your wildlife safari, rather than just a rushed visit at the weekend to tick off a leopard. Wilpattu national park has therefore attracted safari specialists specialised in low impact camps or small lodges and because it is a much bigger park than Yala, you can truly get lost in its large interior. 

Yala National Park – Still the best for Leopards but don’t expect tranquillity on safari!

Because a visit to Wilpattu was not possible when we first visited Sri Lanka in 2002, we were drawn to Yala, which was just starting to gain and international reputation for reliable leopard sighting. I was very lucky on that first wildlife tour to Sri Lanka, to catch a glimpse of a female leopard in Uda Walawe national park, as I followed the south coast of the island linking up a few of the wildlife sanctuaries. However this brief sightings had been of a rather timid and nervous individual, and I did not have the opportunity to take a photograph. In those days Yala, was the Bandhavgarh or Ranthambhore of big cat reserves, where the male leopards have the same confidence and swagger of legendary tigers in India, such as Charger in Bandhavgarh or Bamboo Ram in Ranthambhore. So I was very keen to see up close what the magic in the air around Yala. On our very first evening leopard safari we came across a large male leopard, who as I had hoped appeared completely relaxed around the safari vehicles and allows us all to enjoy his evening territorial walk.

If you would like the opportunity to join us on this special big cat safari of India and Sri Lanka then please check out our small group Tiger and Leopard safari.