[Photo Journal] Going on safari in Wilpattu National Park in Sri Lanka plus tips on planning your safari

The Wilpattu National Park in the Northwest of Sri Lanka does have a lower chance of seeing leopards, but may be a good option for a safari if you are near the airport in Negombo/Colombo or near Anuradhapura in the cultural triangle.

Wilpattu National Park was established in 1938, and has an estimated leopard population of at least 50 individuals that were surveyed by camera traps. The park boasts many natural lakes, some that have quite an eerie feel to them.

Lake view from the jeep

We went on safari in Wilpattu National Park!

This was my first time to go on a safari! We drove around on two occasions, once in the afternoon and once in the early morning, and actually got pretty lucky! Although I’ve studied wildlife and conservation biology, I have rarely encountered wild animals. This was a unique opportunity to do so without affecting them too much.

First of all, it was fun driving on these roads. Second, the landscapes inside the park are beautiful! Check out my video of the highlights from our safaris!

We mostly saw buffalo, peacocks, wild boar, and birds of many sizes. We did get to see monkeys, elephants, and a leopard, but the last two only just barely! Most of the time, though, we spent riding on the roads and enjoying the scenery.

When there was word of a leopard, we were taking our one rest stop break near a lake. Our jeep driver ran over, calling out to me to get us back into the jeep so we could speed off to find the leopard! We were one of the first jeeps to arrive on the scene! The leopard was in the brush next to the road, eating its latest kill.
Buffalo in Wilpattu National Park in Sri Lanka

Peacock in Wilpattu National Park

Another buffalo in Wilpattu National Park

Planning your safari trip

To get to Wilpattu, you can get the train from Colombo to Puttalam (about 4 hours) and then a bus to the main junction. From there, you can get on a jeep straight away or get a tuk tuk to your guest house. You can also head to Anuradhapura first and go west to Wilpattu from there.

Puttalam is in the West. Star is the entrance to the park and pin is the Wilpattu bus junction.

The best time to go on safari is bright and early, with pickup time of 6 AM. If you hire a jeep, they will come to your accommodation to pick you up. You’ll need to arrange this the day before. Our jeep cost us a flat rate of 5,000 LKR (~33 USD) for about 4 hours, but may cost anywhere around there and up to 8,000 LKR (~53 USD).

Guest house managers and jeep owners don’t have much incentive to fill up their jeeps, so you will often see jeeps with 1 or 2 people in them. That’s a real shame since it means wasted fuel and sometimes congestion on the roads. And if there is a leopard sighting, there may be queues to drive past it. (The drivers seem to be all connected by radio, so they know when there is a sighting. They will often stop or slow down when passing another jeep to ask the other driver if there is anything interesting to see around.)

We did 2 safari trips while we were in the area: one in the afternoon the day we arrived, and one in the morning the next day. Entrance fees are 9,000 LKR (~60 USD) per vehicle (regardless of number of passengers). Again, it would be better if you could split this with other people. You will have to ask other guests in your guest house if there are any (which there may not be). Or you could hang around the junction and see if other people are willing to share.

General Tips

  • If you have something to cover your mouth and nose, bring it along because it can get dusty on the roads.
  • Turn off your phones while on safari as there won’t be any signal when you get deeper into the park and that will drain your battery.
  • If you get carsick, sit towards the front of the seating in the jeep because it’ll be bumpy in many parts.
  • Bring a packed breakfast from your guest house with you in the morning, or buy your own snacks before going in. Our guest house gave us butter sandwiches made with white bread. Also bring water with you!
Going on safari!

Me and my college friends D and M in our jeep

Have a great time!

While you are in Sri Lanka, you should at least go on safari once if you can. You will have a unique chance to see wildlife you won’t see anywhere else in the country. You’ll be able to get close to some animals without feeling like you are encroaching on them.

Yala National Park is the second largest park in Sri Lanka and is a more popular destination in the Southeast of Sri Lanka, but with more visitors than Wilpattu might be more crowded on the paths. Wilpattu is larger than Yala, but has lower density of leopards. Even in Wilpattu, there was some congestion at certain parts of the roads and especially when entering and exiting the reserve. If you have time, it might be worth it to see both.

Overall I felt it was worth the money! Maybe we could have just gone the one time instead of twice, but then we wouldn’t have seen the monkeys if we didn’t go in the afternoon the day we arrived!

Are you headed to Sri Lanka? Will you be going on safari?