If you’ve ever been on an African Safari, or even just googled ‘safari’, then you’ve very likely come across the term ‘The Big-Five’. It’s used to describe the five African animals that hunters found the most difficult and dangerous to hunt back when it was legal and apparently not morally repugnant. The African Big 5 consists of lion, leopard, black rhino, African Buffalo and elephant. Thankfully the term is more prevalently used these days to attract tourists (rather than hunters) to game parks, reserves and countries that play host to each of the Big-Five species. In fact, spotting the Big Five is, for many, the highlight or even the sole reason for choosing the African continent as a holiday destination!
But why have I started a post about Sri Lanka‘s wildlife by talking about the African Big Five?
The answer is simple; I am firmly of the belief that Sri Lanka is the best country outside of the African continent offering big game safaris (albeit with its own unique Big Five classification) and therefore worthy of comparison. I appreciate what a big statement that is. After all, there are a number of contenders when it comes to countries for animal lovers; Costa Rica, Brazil, the Galapagos Islands, India and Borneo all immediately spring to mind. But many of those countries don’t offer the same levels of ‘big’ game diversity twinned with confidence of sightings (for example, the chances of spotting a jaguar or puma in the wilds of Costa Rica are near non-existent compared to the chances of sighting a leopard or elephant in Sri Lanka).
Beyond Sri Lanka’s own unique Big Five I’ll also consider what I like to call ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ mammals. For those not familiar with this unique wildlife classification (you probably aren’t seeing as I just made it up) I’m talking about those animals that fall outside of the Big Five but can still be spotted on safari. For example, in many countries across Africa the secondary game could, for example, include cheetah, hyena or hippo i.e. they’re still difficult to spot and just as exciting to see, but don’t form a part of the official Big Five. Tertiary African wildlife might include the many species of antelope, zebra or giraffe i.e. the more common (and less life-threatening) species of animal that you’ll encounter.
So what exactly does Sri Lanka have to offer the wildlife aficionado? Read on to find out and make sure to download the Take Photos Leave Footprints Ultimate Sri Lankan Wildlife Checklist before you visit Sri Lanka!
Sri Lanka’s Big Five
Asian Elephant: Although smaller than the African Elephant the Asian Elephant is still truly a sight to behold; particularly during ‘The Gathering’ at the Minneriya Tank in the North Central region of the Island. During this spectacular annual August-September occurrence up to 300 elephants converge; forming the highest concentration of Asian Elephants anywhere on earth. Outside of ‘The Gathering’ you’ll be able to spot elephants year round in Yala National Park and Udawalawe; particularly the latter which is home to nearly 300 of the gentle giants.
Sri Lankan Leopard: Sri Lanka is undoubtedly one of the best locations in the World for sightings of leopard; with the Sri Lankan Leopard being its endemic sub-species. The reason for the high number of sightings is largely due to the leopard’s status as Sri Lanka’s apex predator. This ensures that, unlike in Africa, leopards can roam freely without fear of being hunted by other species. The result is that it is much easier to spot leopards on the ground rather than mistaking every single tree branch as one of the elusive cats. If leopard sightings are your main objective then my advice is to head to Yala National Park Block 1; particularly when the grass begins to die back at the start of the dry season in May. Yala is famed for having the highest density of leopard anywhere on earth with one leopard for every 2-3 square kilometers; so ‘may the odds forever be in your favor’!
Sloth Bear: The sloth bear, despite its name, is more brown bear than sloth and is native to the Indian subcontinent (although the Sri Lankan variety is a particular sub-species). They are largely characterized by their big, shaggy coat. If sloth bear is what you’re after then your best bet is to visit Yala National Park between late May and June as the bear come out of hiding to climb Palu trees for their fruit. That said, I wouldn’t advise that you turn up with the expectation of guaranteed sightings; after all there are only an estimated 500 sloth bear left anywhere in the world, let alone Yala, making them notoriously elusive. Safe to say that I was very fortunate to get this photo!
Blue and Sperm Whale: The final two members of the Sri Lankan Big Five are water dwellers; so don’t be thinking that you’ll see all 5 on a classic game drive! The most exciting of the two is the Blue Whale; the largest mammal to inhabit our planet. The good news is that Sri Lanka is one of the best places on earth (if not the best) to spot Blue and Sperm whale on the same trip. Prime time for whale watching is December to April (the Southern Seas are calmer as well – meaning less likelihood of sea sickness) with the numbers of both whales peaking in December and then again in April. Your best bet is to head to Mirissa to organise your whale-watching safari as it is frequently regarded as the best place on earth to spot Blue Whales.
Sri Lanka’s ‘Secondary’ and ‘Tertiary’ Mammals
Beyond the Big Five Sri Lanka has a host of other mammals (and a fair few reptiles) to keep you solidly entertained during the Big Game sighting ‘intermissions’. As I mentioned, I like to break African wildlife down into my own unique (i.e. wholly unscientific) classification system with the Big Five being the ‘Primary’ wildlife and two lesser classification categories being secondary and tertiary. How exactly does Sri Lankan wildlife fare under this completely erroneous, made-up, system I hear you ask…..the answer is not too badly at all:
In the secondary game classification I would potentially include Water Buffalo, Jackal, Mugger and Salt Water Crocodile, Fishing Cat, Jungle Cat, Golden Palm Civet and the two sub-species of Loris (they may be small but who wouldn’t want to see a Loris!). Away from land you could include all manner of aquatic species such as Bottlenose and Spinner Dolphins, Humpback and Killer Whales and any of the Island’s five species of sea turtle.
In the tertiary category I’m going to include Sri Lanka’s three species of monkey (the Grey Langur, Toque Macaque and the Purple-Faced Leaf Monkey), its three largest species of deer (the Spotted Deer, Sambar and Indian Muntjac), four species of Mongoose and the Pangolin. I also think the flying fox is worth a mention just because they’re great fun to try and photograph!
So…How Does a Sri Lankan Safari Compare to Africa?
For me a Big-Five African safari remains a tough prospect to beat. From a wildlife perspective Sri Lanka simply doesn’t have the diversity of species that many African destinations can offer. Whilst I talked about Sri Lanka’s secondary and tertiary wildlife it pales in comparison to the long list of mammals you could spot on an African safari. To topple the African safari Sri Lanka also needs to compete with the romanticism that so often accompanies an African safari experience. Safari Sun-downers, sunrise hot air balloon rides, luxurious boutique safari lodges, night game drives, highly personalized service and lodge-adjacent watering holes (where you can sip a G&T whilst watching wildlife) all remain noticeably absent in Sri Lanka.
But many of these drawbacks (wildlife diversity aside) are things which can be incorporated in to the Sri Lanka Safari experience over time and as Sri Lanka’s standing as a safari destination grows. In the meantime Sri Lanka can offer a high density of wildlife in a tropical island setting – and one that is easily traversable on high quality roads. It also offers a combination of wildlife, culture and beaches that many African destinations simply can’t; a tropical island paradise framed with palm trees, sandy beaches, lush highlands, ancient cultural and archeological sites and world class wildlife viewing.
An African Safari can be a ridiculously expensive proposition and herein lays Sri Lanka’s competitive advantage as a financially comfortable first foray into a wildlife holiday for the dubious traveler; perhaps someone that feels more comfortable lounging on the beach in a fully inclusive hotel but would be interested in trying out a safari for a day or two at a more reasonable price than a dedicated African Safari. By adopting that mindset I struggle to see how it’s possible to leave Sri Lanka disappointed!
Make sure to take the Take Photos Leave Footprints Ultimate Sri Lankan Wildlife Checklist with you on your trip to Sri Lanka!