“There’s one!” Ty said and quickly held up his binoculars, looking out the jeep. All of our heads snapped in the direction he was looking. “Yes! There it is!” “You’re a good spotter,” our driver said to Ty. We had been on the safari for over 6 hours and had been growing a little impatient. But there she was, our first wild leopard sighting. The first of many to come during our safari in Wilpattu National Park.
Wilpattu National Park
After seeing all the elephants near Minnereyia, we decided to book another safari at a park known for other animals, Wilpattu National Park.
Wilpattu National Park is the oldest and largest national park in Sri Lanka. Wilpattu, meaning Land of Lakes, is filled with varying landscapes including the wetlands surrounding the lakes, jungle, and even small grassy regions. With such diversity of landscape comes a large diversity in the wildlife as well.
However, even with all these positives, it draws fewer tourists each year because of its location. Located between the Eastern Coastal cities like Kalpitya and the ancient city of Anuradhapura, Wilpattu is accessible. However, less accessible than other parks near tourist sites in the south or central parts of Sri Lanka.
Why Wilpattu National Park:
- A higher chance of seeing leopards and sloth bears than at most other parks
- A wide variety of animals throughout the park
- The stunning landscape and diverse habitats: jungle, wetlands, grasses
- A full day is reccommended to get the best experience. If you aren’t up for 12+ hours in the jeep, it may not be the park for you
Why Booking a Full Day Safari is a MUST in Wilpattu
- More time in the park = Higher chance of seeing those hard to find animals
- It takes a while to get into the main part of the park, so a large portion of a half day tour would involve driving in and out of the park
- If you are willing to join others you can get a lower price, close to the price of a private half day tour
Our Safari in Wilpattu National Park
We booked our safari with our accommodation because of reviews and the price (more on this below). The night we arrived, we got to chat with the group that had gone on the safari earlier that day. They said they spotted 1 elephant and 4 leopards during the day, and the rare sloth bear in the last 10 minutes of their trip, along with many other animals. How exciting!
Early Wake-Up Call
We woke up at 5 am, not so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed but excited nonetheless. Our host made us some tea and handed us our packed food buckets and binoculars. Our 12-hour safari included pickup and dropoff from our accommodation, binoculars, packed meals, and a driver with over 7 years of experience spotting animals in the park.
Our food was packed in containers by meal and put into a bucket with a lid to keep monkeys out (however, we would later learn that the lids don’t always do the trick).
We were joined by a couple from Germany who were in their 60s. This helped reduce the price of the safari and it was nice to have others to chat with. They had done a couple of safaris before in Kenya and Namibia. It was really neat to hear about their experiences.
We loaded into the jeep at 5:45 am and headed to the park. Our accommodation was only a few kilometers away and we arrived before opening. After purchasing our tickets, we headed into the park.
It was a CHILLY morning, and in our t-shirts and shorts, we were a bit cold for a while before the sun came up. But we were too excited to let the goosebumps bring us down.
Our eyes were wide and searching. The morning and evening is the best time for spotting the rare sloth bears. Sadly, it wasn’t our lucky day when it came to the bear, because we didn’t find one.
Wildlife in Wilpattu
Wilpattu National Park is home to over 30 mammals, including the leopard, sloth bear, and Asian elephant. It is home to a large variety of bird species, including migratory species like the bee eater and rarer species like the brown flycatcher. Alongside these animals, lizards like the Land Monitor and crocodiles also call this national park home.
We pulled up behind another jeep, everyone looking around to see what might be there. “The jungle sounds different,” our driver said quietly. “There might be a leopard nearby because it doesn’t sound normal”. Hushed, we scanned the forest and waited.
False alarm (or at least, we weren’t successful in spotting it).
In the first 3 hours of our safari, we saw different animals including two types of deer, buffalo, boar, lizards, and many different birds including a rare flycatcher. But also had 3 false alarms for leopards.
After a long unsuccessful leopard search, we took a rest for breakfast. We pulled into the break spot, filled with monkeys eagerly waiting to snag a snack. Sam headed to the restroom and while she was gone, the jeep had its first visitor…
Before we realized it, a monkey had opened the lid of the other couple’s bucket searching for a meal. When the woman saw him and shooed him away, the sneaky little guy grabbed what he could from the bucket and leaped out. Luckily for them, he was only successful in grabbing a juice box.
Our breakfast included little toasted sandwiches with jam or egg and some fruit. As we ate, the monkeys kept coming. Hopping onto the roof of the jeep, holding onto our seats, watching from the trees above, these little guys had no fear. But we kept our meals to ourselves and shooed them away (after snapping some pictures of course).
Our First Leopard Sighting
After breakfast, we were on the search for a leopard again. We drove around some of the same spots we had visited before because of previous sightings and waited along a lake.
It felt like we’d been out there forever, and you could tell we all started to crash a bit from the wait. We had read that animals would be most active in the morning and evening so when 12 came around, we had little hope of seeing much for the next few hours.
BUT, right around 12:30, Ty spotted our first leopard across the lake. We all watched in awe as this majestic cat strolled along the lake’s edge. Even though she was far away, we were amazed by the sighting and her size. After a couple of minutes, she strolled into the forest and we lost her.
However, familiar with their behavior, our driver headed to another road on the opposite side of the trees she disappeared into. “THERE IT IS”, she had come out the other side and was walking right towards us. For over 5 minutes, she walked in our direction. Making sure to stay a respectful (and safe) distance, our driver backed out of her way every time she got too close.
As she walked, she marked her path. Just like a domestic cat, she rubbed her face on the branches along the road and marked the trail in other cat-like ways. She was so much bigger than we thought leopards would be and her paws were HUGE.
After walking down the path towards us for a while, she disappeared back into the trees. We didn’t see another for almost two hours, we were much more awake now. The sighting had definitely gotten our adrenaline pumping!
Shortly after 2 pm, we saw three more leopards each laying in the middle of a jeep path, only a few hundred feet from the other. We watched them for a bit before they decided they were done and headed back into the forest.
Lunch Time with the Monkeys
At lunch, we were greeted by the monkeys again, but this time we were more prepared to protect our food. We had vegetable noodles, fruit, and a few snacks. Honestly, there was so much food packed, we ended up taking the leftover fruit and snacks to eat over the next couple of days!
Leopards after Lunch
“Do you hear that sound? That’s the warning call of the monkeys. There’s a leopard nearby” our driver said, and moments later he was pointing to the other side of the lake. He had spotted a leopard who was BARELY visible, drinking at the water’s edge. It was so cool how he recognized the sound and was able to spot the big cat camouflaged so well at the edge of the trees.
Although most of our attention was on the hunt for leopards or sloth bears during the safari, the other animals in the park are still so neat to see. Wilpattu National Park is stunning and even if we weren’t finding a rare animal, the views were beautiful throughout the park.
We started to make our way out of the park in the late afternoon because we had to be out by 6 pm when the park closes. As we mentioned before, it takes a while to get to the main part of the park so the drive out took about an hour or so.
Last Leopard Sighting
As we made our way to the entrance of the park, Wilpattu had one last special moment for us. We came up to another jeep at an intersection, the driver excitedly sharing something in Sinhalese with our driver, waving him down a road off the left. We weren’t sure what it would be but knew it was something exciting.
As we pulled up, we saw TWO leopards laying in the grass. together They stirred a bit when we arrived and our driver shared that they were a mating couple. Well, they must not be in the honeymoon phase anymore because a moment after he said that, they started to fight a little. It was probably playful but the coincidence of happening right after he said that was too funny.
We watched them for a while before our driver said it was time to go. As if they knew it was time to go, the leopards stood up and walked back behind the trees. The show’s over, get out.
An Amazing Experience in Wilpattu
What a day it had been. Although we still had hoped to see a sloth bear on the way out, we were not so lucky. BUT we still felt incredibly grateful to have seen 7 leopards that day and from the whole safari experience in general.
Interested in visiting Wilpattu National Park?
Where to stay for a safari in Wilpattu National Park:
Near Wilpattu, the options for accommodation are quite limited. There are a few budget-friendly options while most are not-so-budget-friendly. We enjoyed our stay at the Green Sapphire Holiday Resort.
- Green Sapphire Holiday Resort – Although resort is in the name, it is a homestay. Budget room with the option to book a wonderful safari with the host. The rooms are basic but clean and the host is super friendly. The wifi is not reliable but if you’re only staying long enough for the safari, this shouldn’t matter too much. Breakfast was included for us through booking.com and dinner was tasty! There are not any options for food outside the homestay but we were happy with our meals.
- The Backwaters – A guesthouse outside Wilpattu offering a chance to experience the outdoors by jeep safari in the national park and a boat tour! The rooms also have a balcony to kick back on, enjoying the sounds of nature.
- Wilpattu Safari Camp – Camp near the park at this eco-friendly (but high priced) accommodation. These tents have electricity sourced by green energy! Book here for an all inclusive package experieince for Wilpattu National Park.
What is the best time to visit Wilpattu National Park?
- May to September is considered the best season to take a safari in Wilpattu National Park. This is because during the dry season animals come out more, in search of water. However, the park says between February and October is a great time to visit.
- October to December is the rainy season, and less advised to visit during this time.
- We went in February and saw an incredible amount of leopards, however, we didn’t see a single elephant. If you’re looking to see a bunch of elephants, choosing Udawalawe or near Minneriya may be the better option.
Booking a Safari at Wilpattu National Park
- Going by jeep is mandatory in the park. You cannot enter the national park on foot and can’t exit the jeep except in designated areas.
- No matter who you book through, your safari should include a snack and refreshments (for a half-day) or a meal and refreshments (for a whole day). You should also be given a pair of binoculars to use during the trip.
- Booking a full-day safari is the BEST choice for Wilpattu National Park. If you read our story above, you’ll see that we didn’t even see a leopard until being in the park for 6 hours. On top of this, it takes a long time to reach the main section of the park. If you choose a half-day safari, you will spend about half of your time driving in and then out of the park.
In February of 2022, we had 2 quotes from different companies: $132 for 2 and $96 per person for a two-person safari. If you have a larger group or ask to join others, you should have a reduced price!
To book a safari, you have a couple of different options:
- Book with a company: There is a tour company called Sri Lanka Expeditions that offers safari packages. Although we didn’t book with them, they do look promising. Make sure to read recent reviews before booking.
- Book with accommodation: This is how we did our safari and were happy with our result. Your accommodation will most likely have a partnership with a driver experienced in spotting animals in the park. We recommend asking for the price ahead of time to compare with other companies to get the best deal.
- Book on-site: Although we don’t love this option because you will be getting in the park later and not sure what you’ll end up with, you can try to find a guide at the park entrance
What to Pack on a Safari
- Camera – to take all the pictures of course, even better if you have a zoom/telephoto lens!
- Water – to stay hydrated on your adventure
- Sunscreen – to protect your skin! It’ll be a long day
- Light jacket – don’t forget like us and freeze in the morning!
- Portable charger – to ensure your phone or camera doesn’t run out of juice before the long day is over
- Snacks – if you have a special diet or book a safari without them
Enjoy your trip! We had an amazing time on our safari in Wilpattu National Park. If you are planning a trip to Sri Lanka, be sure to check out this beautiful place! It’s a perfect replacement for the busier parks in the south. You’ll have the opportunity to spot some incredible animals!