Leopards in Wilpattu National Park

On Sunday 24th June 2018 we were picked up at 5am from our hostel to go to the Wilpattu National Park. This is the largest national park in Sri Lanka at 1317 square kilometres and it’s name translates to mean ‘10 lakes’ in Tamil which is apparent once you’re inside as there are a number of lakes around the park creating open spaces to look for wildlife. The park is very dense compared to other parks in Sri Lanka such as the famous Yala National Park but this means it’s less touristy whilst still having leopards, sloth bears, elephants, spotted deer and monkeys. After Yala, this is the second best place to find leopards due to the number of leopards per 100 square kilometres which is why we chose it as it meant we could avoid the crowds of jeeps Yala National Park was known to have!

The safari was 18,800LKR (£89) for the jeep and included a pick up and drop off from our hostel. An Aussie called James had checked into the hostel the day before and so the three of us were going on the safari together which was good as it made it slightly cheaper for us (although it was still expensive compared to other safaris). We also had the national park entry to pay which was 15USD each so the day was costing a lot but, in relation to safaris in Africa for example, I don’t think the price was too bad and it was worth it for a chance to see a leopard in the wild as this is one of the few countries where that’s possible.

Around an hour after leaving the hostel we were moved from the mini van we had been in to our safari jeep. This was a roofed truck with seats in the back and no sides to maximise animal viewing. With there only being the three of us in the jeep it was pretty comfy and Niall and James both fell asleep at different times during the safari (not when animals were around of course) as the seats reclined and were nice and padded. It was also a really nice temperature with a good breeze throughout the day so we didn’t get too hot which I had thought we might considering we were going around a National Park in Sri Lanka!We drove around the park for a while looking for wildlife. The park is very forested with dirt roads running through it. Our jeep driver always seemed to know where he was going which I find remarkable as I’d have gotten horribly lost after the first few turnings! Between the forested areas we would occasionally come into clearings showing beautifully calm lakes or open grass areas. The scenery was stunning and it was very relaxing to drive around the park trying to find leopards and other wildlife that lived there.

The first animal we saw in the park and a frequent site for us during the day were spotted deer. They were everywhere and I hadn’t even known Sri Lanka to have deer so it was a surprise to see so many of them. They seem to be smaller than the deer we get back in the UK but they still had large, sharp looking antlers. These are one of the food sources for leopards and it felt a bit mean but you always hoped that seeing them meant a leopard might be somewhere nearby for your to spot.

Birdlife was also prevalent in the national park and so we would also stop if we saw anything unusual or pretty. Me and Niall aren’t so fussed about birds but like to see the colourful ones. At one point we got stuck behind a jeep of six men with large cameras who were stopping every few meters to take pictures of a pigeon like bird that was on the road. We were going to lose our minds if we stayed stuck behind them all day but, thankfully, our driver moved us past them which also scared off the bird they were photographing! Throughout the day we saw a huge number of peacocks, woolly necked stalks, kingfishers and the Sri Lankan national animal, the jungle fowl which looks very similar to a rooster. We also saw a couple serpent eagles and a grey headed fish eagle which were both amazing and didn’t seem phased by us being near them at all.As I’ve mentioned, this National Park was meant to be considerably less crowded but at one point this was hard to believe when we got word that a leopard had been sighted! We headed over to the spot to find a long line of jeeps already there. We had, naively, expected to be one of only a few jeeps in the national park and I think that there were still considerably less than other parks like Yala. Our driver was good at getting us a good spot amongst the jeeps to be able to see the leopards but it made me particularly happy with our decision to do this park over Yala as I think it would have severely affected our enjoyment had we been constantly surrounded by loads more jeeps (this is speculation of course as we haven’t done Yala National Park and I have had friends who still had a great time so who knows).

The leopard had been spotted asleep in a tree but we didn’t see this due to all the jeeps and it had woken up and moved. A lot of jeeps left after waiting a while for it to reappear but we decided to stay for longer. What we saw were the leopards (there ended up being two of them) once they had woken up properly and were in the bushes. One walked past a clearing in the trees and one stopped and looked right out at us for a while which was especially amazing to see. James had binoculars and a good camera so we got some good pictures and close up views of it which was amazing. Their eyes are so beautiful and they’re so camouflaged in the long grass that it would be so easy to miss them!Throughout the day we drove around the national park and only ended up bumping into the occasional jeep which was much nicer. The national park was a lot more dense than we had expected but I guess that would be why there were so many leopards there plus I’ve only ever seen pictures of African safaris which are a lot more open. There are also a number of watering holes and whilst driving past one of them we saw an elephant in the shallows eating grass. It was funny because she would pick the grass from the water and then flick and shake it about to get rid of the excess water before eating it, almost like we would wash salad leaves. It looked like she might be pregnant which was cool and it was nice to see it in such a safe environment – it didn’t even seem to know we were there which is exactly how you want to be able to view wildlife!

Throughout the rest of the day we saw gray langurs (also known as hanuman langurs) which we had also seen when we were in India and are a huge favourite of ours. As well as macaques, iguanas, water buffalo, barking deer (also known as muntjacs) and Niall also saw a wild boar!After our lunch stop we headed back to where we had seen the leopards earlier that day to see if they had returned to the same spot. There were some jeeps who had been there waiting the entire day but we chose to go off and see if we could find them anywhere else which turned it to be the best decision we could have made. As we were driving along James suddenly shouted ‘stop!’ as a leopard ran right past the front of our jeep! We saw it as it ran through the jungle and watched it for ages as it settled for a rest by some trees deep into the jungle. It was so hard to find due to its spots giving it camouflage making it hard to get an outline on it but we managed to locate it amongst the branches and all of us couldn’t believe our luck particularly as we got to see it very closely as it ran off into the jungle

We kept driving around but didn’t think we’d be seeing anything else that day when we came across a sloth bear that was sitting on the edge of the road. Thankfully we were the only jeep in the area so we got to watch the bear for ages before it ran off – it would have definitely been spooked had there been other jeeps around! The bear was so cute and looked quite fluffy. Sloth bears are only found in on the Indian subcontinent with India and Sri Lanka having their own subspecies. Sloth bears are considered a threatened/vulnerable species mainly because habitat loss so we were lucky to see one! It is estimated that there are only 1000 Sri Lankan sloth bears alive today which makes us even more lucky to have seen one of them!

We were then taken out of the park and back to our hostel but this was an hour earlier than we were meant to be leaving so we nor Paul from the hostel, were too happy about this! Paul managed to get us 3000LKR (£15) refunded but it was all a bit of a shame as it detracted from our great day. Taking that out of the equation, we had a great day. Having less jeeps and only a few of us in the jeep made the experience very comfortable and our hostel had also sorted us out lunch of two sandwiches, boiled eggs, bananas and 3litres of water (for 1350LKR/£6.50) which meant we didn’t go hungry during our long day out. Of course there as a lot of time when we were just driving around and not seeing anything but that’s to be expected as they’re wild animals and the park is enormous so they could be anywhere. Saying that, we ended up seeing three leopards which was amazing and we got to see them so clearly too! Also getting to see the sloth bear was a lovely way to end our safari and we had been able to see all of the animals we had hoped to see which was incredibly lucky!

All in all, I’m glad we went to Wilpattu National Park and didn’t expect to see nearly as much as we did. It was great that this was only our third day in Sri Lanka and it made me excited for everything that was left to come seeing as it was all so good so far!

Next stop: East to Trincomalee

Sending love x

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