There is a profusion of blogs and brochures about leopards in Yala or the orphaned elephants of Pinnawala in Sri Lanka, the country’s two major wildlife junctions. So we scoured through the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, and picked out lesser-feted wildlife destinations where you can easily dodge the crowds.
1. Minneriya National Park
Proximity to wild elephants, when they are hardly a trunk away from your jeep, is both nerve wracking and exhilarating for a wildlife junkie. But you can breathe easy because even hundreds of tuskers don’t seem to make seasoned guides nervous on the open safari jeeps. The elephants are familiar with the intruders and venture close by only if they need to cross the jeep, or if something in it smells irresistible. But mostly, it’s the lure of the namesake historic catchment of water built in 3rd century that brings close to 200 elephants (called a ‘gathering’) lumbering here. It is a veritable dry season feeding ground for them. Also look out for the odd jungle fowl scuttling away at the edge of the trail, water birds like storks and herons, deer, and the gangs of langurs teasing birds and visitors from their high perches.
Getting There: The closest base is the city of Habarana (9.5km). Minneriya can be coupled with other stops like the Dambulla Cave Temple, Golden Buddha Statue and Sigiriya Rock that lie within a radius of 50km.
Entry Fee and Timings: Adult: US$15, child: US$158, service charge US$8, charge per vehicle Rs 250 (SL); 5.30-8.30am and 3-6pm
2. Kumana National Park
Neighbour to one of the most well known national parks of Sri Lanka and formerly known as Yala East National Park, many give Kumana a miss thanks to the inimitable reputation of Yala. But offbeat travellers will love the fact that even in high-season, Kumana is relatively tourist free and gorgeous as extensive water bodies make the park a birding hotspot. Over 255 species of avian friends are found here including species like black-necked stork, lesser adjutant and Eurasian spoonbill. The national park is also home to the legacy of 3rd century inhabitants in the region; rock inscriptions are testimony to its significance in Sri Lankan history.
Getting There: Across the coast from Colombo at 357km, this is better to access from Arugam Bay (24km).
Entry Fee and Timings: Adult: US$10, child: US$5, service charge: US$8, charge per vehicle: Rs 250 (SL); 5.30-8.30am and 3-6pm
3. Bundala National Park
Relatively smaller compared to the other green patches of the country, Bundala still manages to pack in a lot of punch for birding enthusiasts. The coastal park has numerous marshes and lagoons, the ideal habitat for water birds. The sweep of flamingos during the cooler months of December and January are a treat for the eyes. Despite the park being a small one, it offers opportunity and high frequency sightings of elephants, deer, langurs, crocodiles and wild boar, that keep the interest level up for those who want to see more than birds. This park is great to loop in with a trip to the coastal resorts of Hambantota, Galle, Matara and Tangalle.
Getting There: Bundala lies 245km from Colombo. It’s best to cover with other destinations like Galle (135km) and Hambantota (13km)
Entry fee and timings: Adult: US$10, Child: US$5, service charge: US$8, charge per vehicle Rs 250 (SL); 5.30-8.30am and 3-6pm
4. Turtle watching in Rekawa
If there is history fatigue on your trip to Sri Lanka, cool off by watching the magnificent sight of turtles laying eggs on the Rekawa Beach. Unfortunately, this is now climbing the popularity charts with velocity, and there are chances of huge crowds in the main season between April to July. But a trip during the other months is sure to award you with the sight of all-year-round nests. There are five turtle species that lay eggs on this stretch, of which, the giant leatherbacks are the most stunning. Connect with www.turtlewatchrekawa.org to organise sighting tours with experts.
Getting There: The closest access is Tangalle beach (8.9km)
Entry Fee and Timings: Adult: Rs. 1000, child: Rs. 500 (SL); 8.30pm-midnight
5. Gal Oya National Park
The watery wonder of Gal Oya is balm to the eyes, especially during March to July when the landscape is rich in the deepest greens between bouldery browns and plenty of water bodies come to life. This is the ideal national park for leopard sightings, elephants, sloth bears and monkeys. It’s not just the lure of the mammals, but birding enthusiasts can sight over 100 species. Unlike other sanctuaries and national parks, Gal Oya offers boat safaris.
Getting there: The access point is from Ampara town, which lies inland from the east coast. The town lies over 300km from Colombo, so it’s best to use a town in the middle as a jumping off point.
Entry Fee and Timings: Adult: US$10, Child: US$5, service charge US$8, charge per vehicle Rs 250 (SL); 5.30-8.30am and 3-6pm