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Seven animals you have to see in the Pearl of the Indian Ocean

The Sri Lanka department of Wildlife Conservation recently published a list of the seven most iconic wild animals in the island as a way of promoting tourism and the conservation of all species in and outside this list.

Sri Lanka is somewhat of an outlier when it comes to biodiversity. Experts have been studying the biodiversity of this small island since the early 20th century, and all with good reason. The number of animal species in the island is said to be five times as much as it is supposed to be in an island of its size, and the number of endemic species in the country is amazing. From endemic birds to endemic primates, Sri Lanka has them all. The wonder of Sri Lanka – being such a small island – is that you don’t have to travel far to see any of them.

The top 7 wild animal species on the list are:


Sri Lankan Leopard

Panthera pardis kotiya – apex predators

Leopards are considered the most successful of the big cat species in the world. The Sri Lankan subspecies of leopards is testament to the adaptability of these spotted felines. Sri Lanka’s Yala National Park is prime leopard territory, as it is said to have the highest leopard density in the world.

Leopards are the apex predator in Sri Lanka’s wild. Usually lone hunters, these cats can sometimes be seen sleeping during the day, hidden away from view on a tree branch. It is during sundown that they come down to hunt. With an indiscriminate diet, ranging from wild hares to deer, leopards survive the elements better than any other big cat in the world. Although most species of leopards are known to carry their prey up into trees, Sri Lankan leopards take advantage of their position on top of the food chain to eat their catch where they please.

Sri Lankan Safaris gives you the opportunity to view these magnificent felines in the wild in Sri Lanka’s many National Parks. Inquire today about our leopard safaris, and make your bookings today. Our guides are well equipped to find where you can see these big cats, and will take you there.


Sri Lankan Elephant

Elephas maximus maximus – Majestic and gentle giants

The Sri Lankan elephant is a subspecies of the Asian Elephant. By far Sri Lanka’s largest land animal, these magnificent animals are a symbol of Sri Lanka as much as anything.

Once extensively hunted for their ivory, the population of elephants in Sri Lanka dwindled to a few thousand, from a few hundreds of thousand before colonisation. Although the number of elephants with tusks has dropped dramatically as a result, the overall population of elephants has somewhat stabilised in the country due to conservation efforts in the country.

Elephants were very much a part of everyday life until very recently in Sri Lanka. They have been used in the logging industry and continue to be part of the cultural procession known as the Kandy Perahera.

To get the best elephant experience, though, you have to see them in their natural habitat. The Yala and Minneriya National Parks, as well as a few other national parks around the country, are prime locations to view these giants in the wild.

Sri Lanka Safaris offers great opportunities to view Sri Lankan elephants in their element. Our expert guides know where to find the herds of pachyderms, so that you get the best experience.


Sloth Bear

Melursus ursinus inoratus – large omnivores of the lowlands

The Sri Lankan sloth bear is a subspecies of the sloth bears found in the rest of the Indian subcontinent. Characterised by a shaggy black coat, white muzzle, and white claws, they can range from 60-90cm at the shoulder, and can weigh up to 130kg, with females being smaller than males.

Sloth bears are basically termite eaters, and are known to supplement their diet of with other insects, honey, fruits, and other plant matter. Sloth Bears are excellent climbers, and are known to be able to climb tall trees to reach honeycombs.

Usually found in Sri lanka’s Eastern and Northern lowland forests in the dry zone, Sloth Bears travel in pairs or small family units, with males usually gentle with cubs, and females being generally protective. Sloth bears were once found throughout the island, but loss of their habitat due to aggressive land use for agriculture has meant that their numbers have dwindled. Hunting for sport during colonial times also led to the decline in these bears.

Seeing sloth bears in the wild is a rare experience, and Sri Lanka Safaris’ expert guides give you the best chance to see these bears in their natural habitat. Inquire and book today!


Blue Whale

Balaenoptera musculus- true giants of the ocean

Blue Whales are thought to be the largest animal ever to have lived on the planet. Like all species of whale, it is a marine mammal, and can reach up to 30m in length, and more than 170 tonnes. Commonly living alone or in pairs, they are part of great colonies which generally migrate long distances throughout the year.

Sri Lanka is the best country in the world to view blue whales, without exception. A blue whale population off the coast of Sri Lankan is believed to have up to 1,000 individuals, making it the largest blue whale colony anywhere in the world. It is also the only known pod of blue whales that is non-migratory, so visitors to the island have a chance to view these giants all year round.

Blue whales are not just the largest animal. They are said to be the loudest as well, although their calls fall outside the range of human hearing at 10 to 40Hz.

Sri Lanka Safaris offers a great opportunity for you to see these magnificent creatures up close. A short boat ride from any of several locations will get you close enough to see these giants in their natural habitat!


Black-necked Stork

Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus – a large wetland wader

The Black-necked Stork is a large wader that belongs to the family Ciconiidae. A bird which can be as tall as 130-150cm, have a wingspan of 230cm, and can weigh approximately 4kg, they typically live alone, as couples, or as small family groups.

Sri Lanka’s many wetlands are ideal for these large storks to thrive, as they are rich in the stork’s food sources, which can include crabs and other crustaceans, molluscs, bird and turtle eggs, and even other small aquatic birds, which they catch using their large bill.

Black-necked Storks get their name from the distinct glossy and iridescent bluish black colour of their head and neck. Other visual cues to identify them are the flight feathers and tail of the same colour, bright white belly and back, and bright red legs. Females and males look very similar, except for the colour of their iris – in females, it’s yellow, and in males, it’s brown.

The IUCN has named this species Near Threatned, due to loss of wetland habitat over the past few years.

Sri Lanka Safaris offers you some great opportunities to see this large stork in a few of Sri Lanka’s national parks, such as Yala and Minneriya.


Saltwater Crocodile

Crocodylus porosus – largest reptiles in the country

Tipping the scales at up to 2000kg and up to 6m long is the largest reptile species found in Sri Lanka, the Saltwater Crocodile.

These adaptable carnivores are opportunistic eaters, and their varied diet consists of everything from fish to crustaceans to even mammals. Resident in a large number of wetland habitats – mangrove swamps, estuaries, river deltas, lagoons and lakes – they are usually the apex predator in all habitats due to their size and unrestricted diet.

Although once spread out through the entire island, hunting (eggs included) and loss of habitat due to human behaviour (pollution, construction, and logging) has diminished the range of these large reptiles. As a strictly protected species, though, it has had resurgence over the last few years, and is now classified by IUCN as “Least Concern”.

Sri Lanka’s national parks, including Yala, Udawalawe and Minneriya, are among the crocodile’s habitats, and Sri Lanka Safaris will take you to where the action is. Although a crocodile hunting a juvenile mammal is not for the squeamish, it is one of the truly great sights of nature in action. We ensure that you don’t miss out on any of the action. Ask us about viewing Saltwater Crocodiles today!


Leatherback Sea Turtle

Dermochelys coriacea – graceful swimmers of the ocean

The leatherback turtle is the largest species of turtle alive today. What sets them apart from other turtles is the fact that they don’t have a shell, but a skin carapace. These beautiful sea reptilians can grow up to more than 2m in length, and weigh up to 250 - 500 kg.

Although they are great swimmers and divers, they are not very fast on land, where they have to visit every few years to lay their eggs. Humans living in coastal areas used this to their advantage and hunted these turtles for their meat and eggs. The dramatic reduction in numbers means that these turtles are now listed as critically endangered.

Although the habitat of the leatherback turtle is varied due to them travelling great distances, their numbers are cause for concern. Recent international conservation attempts have managed to stop the reduction in their numbers, but it is thought that it will take a long time for their numbers to get back to historical values.

Sri Lanka Safaris offers you an opportunity to see these magnificent reptiles in their natural habitat. Make an enquiry now and book soon for your chance to see these rare reptiles in their element.

Sri Lanka is the top spot for some of the most coveted safari animals in the world

leopard at yala national park sri lankaAfrica's Big Five is famous and over the years I have heard many people loosely referring to various Sri Lankan equiva- lents. One such example was an article by Srilal Miththapala in the Sunday Times of 14th March 2010. In this article, he advocated a Sri Lankan Big Four. Since around 2008, I had fo- cused on branding Sri Lanka as the Ultimate Island Safari (see www.srilanka.travel for a free pdf) and I had not devoted time to overtly branding a Sri Lankan Big Five, or Four or Three. However, the idea for a Big Five had been forming in my mind. A catalyst for articulating this was a conversation I had in March 2010 with Shiromal Cooray. She had returned from the world's largest travel trade fair, the ITB, and commented that the mainstream tour operators were looking for fresh ideas. She was not aware of Miththapala's article, but quite co-inci- dentally asked me whether we could look at a Sri Lankan Top Three or something on those lines for developing an itiner- ary. I suggested a Sri Lankan Big Five branding, which we had used as a visual theme on the cover of a pdf titled 'Sri Lanka: The Ultimate Island Safari', published a few months earlier.


The choice of species agrees with Miththapala’s arti- cle and that of others who have referred to ‘Big Lists’ be- fore, but with the addition of the Sperm Whale. In this article I will explain why I think we should brand a Big Five and also explain selection criteria and the ‘strike rate’.


Why a BiG Five?

elephants in sri lanka national parksThere were two strong reasons why I felt if we were to brand and market a ‘Big List’, we should go for a Big Five. Firstly, creating a Sri Lankan Big Five creates a ‘symmetry of phrase’ with the Af- rican Big Five. Secondly, Sri Lanka is the best safari destination outside Africa and it makes sense to maintain a ‘symmetry of phrase’ as the large continent of Africa and the tiny island of Sri Lanka are Big Game safari counterparts. Outside Africa, no oth- er country or continent can boast of five, big charismatic animals which also offer a good strike rate and a chance to see all of them in one trip. I have in the last few years begun branding Sri Lanka as the ‘Ultimate Island Safari’. An A4, sixteen page, pdf publica- tion on this topic is available on www.srilanka.travel. The more I have discussed this pdf, the deeper the realization has been that this small island, is the Big Game safari counterpart for the en- tire continent of Africa. On 21 July 2010, with Leia Morales of the British company Representation Plus, I met the famous TV bird- er, wildlife presenter and author Bill Oddie and journalist Liam Creedon. I gave them a briefing before they flew out to Sri Lanka.


I explained once again why outside Africa, Sri Lanka is the best wildlife safari destination for being able to serve up an alternative Big Five. Therefore because of the symme- try of phrase and Sri Lanka being an island counterpart to the definitive safari continent, it makes sense that Sri Lan- ka Tourism adopts a Big Five safari branding. Conversations such as this and my discussions with professional wildlife tour operators and tour leaders in the UK as well as discus- sions with tour operators and game lodge owners from In- dia, prompted me to write this article to serve as a press brief.


People may ask why India is not the best counterpart to Afri- ca. India certainly has the charismatic Tiger. The Asiatic Lion can be seen and with some difficulty so can the Indian Rhi- noceros. But large distances will need to be covered. Surpris- ingly, the Asian Elephant is not so easy to see and Leopard and Sloth Bear are almost impossible for a tourist to see. In- dian wildlife enthusiasts and photographers have now begun to visit Sri Lanka to see Leopard, Sloth Bear, Asian Elephant, Blue and Sperm Whales as word spreads that for big, enigmatic animals, Sri Lanka in the right season, offers a virtually guar- anteed opportunity to see these animals. In India, they are not easy to see and in most other places in the world, they are al- most impossible to see. The Sri Lankan Tourism industry now needs to get the word out to the world at large, that for Big Game Safaris, Sri Lanka is the best outside the African Continent.


Sri Lanka’s Big Five

My nominations for the Big Five would be as follows.

Big Blue The Blue Whale, the biggest animal which has ever lived on the planet.
Big Tooth The Sperm Whale, the biggest toothed whale species in the world.
Big Cat The leopard, the biggest cat in Sri Lanka, the third biggest in Asia and the top predator in Sri Lanka.
Big Ele The Asian Elephant, the biggest terrestrial mammal in Asia.
Big Tropical Bear

One of the biggest bears in tropical latitudes. The Sloth Bear may well be the largest bear in

tropical latitudes, but data on Asian bears is not sufficient at the time of writing to be conclusive.


I will develop this article along three areas. Firstly, why we should include the Sperm Whale to the list, because no one who has previously written about or discussed a Sri Lanka Big List has included the Sperm Whale. Sec- ondly, I wish to articulate some selection criteria to make the process objective as possible. Thirdly, I wish to emphasize the importance of the strike rate, which decides whether the nominees for the Big Five are sellable as a tourism product.


The development of marine wildlife tourism and why the sperm whale should be in the Big Five

whales in sri lankaI believe it is imperative that both the Blue Whale and the Sperm Whale feature in Sri Lanka’s list of ‘must see and can see’ list of large animals because it reinforces the fact that Sri Lanka is an oceanic island. What is more, the South of Sri Lanka is the best place in the world for seeing both Blue Whales and Sperm whales in one whale watching trip. In May 2008, drawing on a research insight by Dr Charles Anderson and following a lot of field work by me and data gathered by people who worked with me, I took the story to the world that Sri Lanka was the best place in the world for seeing Blue Whales. In March 2010 in the Sunday Times and Hi magazine I broke the story that the Kalpitiya Peninsula is very good for seeing Sperm Whales. This was once again inspired by a suggestion by Dr Anderson. Records of sightings which are now beginning to come in suggest that Kalpitiya could comforta- bly be in the top five or top seven sites in the world for reliably seeing Sperm Whales during the viewing season. It is possible that with a more focused search around the 400m depth isobar (E 079 35) which runs parallel to the peninsula, it may rank as a top site behind Kaikoura in New Zealand and the Azores. However, at this stage it is best to conservatively list Sri Lanka as being amongst the top ten places in the world for seeing Sperm Whales.


To have been a good site for either the largest baleen whale or for the largest toothed whale would have been good. To be one of the top locations in the world for both is remarkable. Having both of these species in the Big Five reinforces the fact that Sri Lanka is remarkably rich for marine mammals. This has been echoed by visiting researchers in research vessels including the Odyssey and the Tulip in recent decades and whalers from cen- turies past. However of all the big wildlife stories, marine mammal tourism was the last frontier to be crossed by tourism professionals. In 2001, we began to brand Sri Lanka for its Leopards (for a history see Hi Maga- zine March 2009) and The Gathering of Leopards (see Hi Magazine December 2008). Other animal groups such as primates were also publicised for tourism. Birds had been developed for eco-tourism for some time thanks to the pioneering efforts of Thilo Hoffmann and his team. However within bird watching there was still room for brand labels such as the Sinharaja Bird Wave to be created for specific phenomena which had been studied by conservationists and scientists such as Professor Sarath Kotagama (See Hi Magazine May 2009).


Between 2001 and 2007, the Leopards, Elephants, Primates, Butterflies and Dragonflies (see Hi Maga- zine August 2009) had entered the vocabulary of tourism. However marine mammal tourism, for which the country was so ideally situated, eluded our efforts because of the cost of access. Taking a boat out to sea meant negotiating with a fisherman to compensate him for a day’s catch. The field work required to develop marine mammal tourism was prohibitively expensive. Marine mammal fieldwork was confined to a few researchers who could gain grants to run a boat out to sea. However, after 2006, affordable ac- cess to the sea, especially for me and my team at Jetwing Eco Holidays dramatically changed on two fronts.


Firstly, the setting up of Mirissa Water Sports after the Boxing Day Tsunami which provided me with low cost access to the Blue Whales in the southern seas. After my first whale watching trip on 1st April 2008, I negotiated with the boat crew to take me out for the cost of diesel in exchange for the promise that I would put Mirissa on the world map for Blue Whales. In 2008, the crew would struggle to get a booking and on several days had just me chartering the entire boat for Rs 3,000 of diesel for a research sailing. Two years later, it can barely cope with the demand during the season. No less than five operators were whale watching during the 2009/2010 season.


The second front was the support by Dallas Martenstyn and his co-investors to me, which dramatically changed how the Kalpitiya Peninsula will be viewed. In 2008, they had established it as a top site for watch- ing spinner dolphins. I was able to come up with sightings and credible reasons as to why Kalpitiya can also be a whale watching hot spot (see Sunday Times 07 March 2010). It also allowed me to pursue a long held dream to find a top spot in Sri Lanka for seeing rare pelagic seabirds (see Sunday Times 25 April 2010).


In March 2010 we handled Andrew Sutton and Chris Waller who filmed and took still photographs of Blue and Sperm Whales in the seas South of Mirissa. The link to their images travelled around wide- ly by email and many more underwater film makers and photographers are likely to come to both Miris- sa and Kalpitiya in the future. More and more people are aware of marine mammals and with the ad- vent of digital photography every month more and more Sri Lanka wildlife enthusiasts are up-loading images of cetaceans photographed in Sri Lankan waters to flickr.com and other picture sharing websites.


So in my view, having the Blue Whale and Sperm Whale in Sri Lanka’s top list of ‘ani- mals to see’ makes sense. This is because we are a reliable location for seeing these highly de- sired animals and they underline that Sri Lanka is an oceanic, tropical island and one with the po- tential to be one of the leading marine mammal watching destinations in the world. The case for including the Sperm Whale also brings me to articulate a set of criteria for making the top list.



An animal that makes it to the Big Five list must satisfy the following criteria.

Big It must be physically big.
Desirable It must be an animal which is so desirable that peo- ple would travel from the other end of the world to see it.
Awe Must be capable of inspiring awe and fear because it does kill or can kill people.
Strike Rate It must be possible to see it with a reasonable degree of likelihood for it to be sellable as a wildlife tourism product.
Sri Lanka a Top Site Sri Lanka should be one of the best places in the world in which to see it.
Mainstream Tour Ideally, the species chosen, subject to seasonality, should have a reasonable likelihood of being seen in the course of a single, affordable tour which can be used for mainstream tourism.


I do not include in the criteria that it must be unique to Sri Lanka as animals such as the Blue Whale which is our biggest positive international media story is widespread (although diffi- cult to see elsewhere). Rarity is not a good criterion as rare animals cannot be shown easily to tour- ists. If rarity was a criteria there would be hundreds of rare rainforest animals jostling for a place on the list. The requirement for a reasonable strike rate means that rarities are excluded in the Big Five.


The requirement that it is a big animal means that the Spinner Dolphins which are much loved and desired does not make the list. Furthermore there are other places in the world where they can be viewed in large numbers. The Buffalo is big but does not make the list be- cause of doubts about its origins and also because it is not so desirable that people would want to travel to Sri Lanka to see it. But they would for all of the other animals on the Big Five list.


The Strike Rate

sloth bears in sri lankaOne of the most important criteria for big, desirable animals is the strike rate. There is lim- ited tourism value in creating a brand association between an animal and a destination if visi- tors are not likely to see it. Let me run through my nominees for the Sri Lankan Big Five and ex- plain why the island is one of the best, if not the best place in the world in which to see it.


Almost everyone in the world, dreams of seeing a Blue Whale. With Blue Whales we have now established that during the season the strike rate is over ninety per cent, off Miris- sa. Nowhere else in the world can Blue Whales be seen in such numbers and with such ease.


For Sperm Whales, between Mirissa and Kalpitiya, the strike rate is good enough for marine wildlife tour- ism where visitors engage in multiple visits to sea. Given that Sri Lanka is one of the best places in which to see this animal and the other factors such as its popularity, it qualifies for the list. I believe Kalpitiya is the place in which to focus the search for Sperm Whales, based on the data during the first quarter of 2010.


With the Leopard, I was the first to begin the mantra that Yala National Park in Sri Lanka is one of the best places in the world to see and photograph leopards and that five game drives offered a ninety per cent chance. This has been proven over the years. The leopards have also now become so habituated to vehicles that the strike rate is probably even better than what I quoted initially. At present, 3 game drives seem to offer a 95 per cent strike rate. Every year one or more sets of cubs perform for the cameras and it has now become almost too easy to photograph leopards. The re-opening of Wilpattu National Park will see another point of focus for leopards as the park is managed and the animals become habituated.


The Asian Elephant is found in 13 countries. But it is not an easy animal to see other than in Sri Lanka which is the best place in the world for seeing it. There is only one place in Asia where a visitor is guaranteed to see an elephant on a game drive. This is Uda Walwe National Park. Given how popular elephants are, it is surprising that we don’t brand Uda Walawe National Park more strongly enough as the best place in the world in which to see a wild Asian Elephant with a hundred per cent strike rate. In addition, Sri Lanka also has the spectacular Gathering of Elephants, a seasonal event in the Minneriya (and Kaudulla) National Parks. At times, I have observed 300 elephants gath- ered within a one kilometer quadrat. However, it is more likely that one may see between 100-200 elephants, from one vantage point, on a good viewing. There are possibly two places in Africa, where more elephants may gather together in times of drought. But The Gathering of Elephants in Minneriya (and Kaudulla) is the largest gathering of elephants which recurs, predictably each year, albeit seasonally. In short it is the largest recurring or seasonal gathering of elephants in the world which is can be of- fered as a tourism product.


Ironically it is easier to see a leopard in Yala than it is to see a Sloth Bear. But then again there is always an individual or mother Sloth Bear with cubs in any given year which is tol- erant of vehicles and provides a reasonable chance of seeing a Sloth Bear to serious wildlife enthusiasts who undertake three to five game drives. When the Palu Trees begin to bear ripe fruit in June and July, bears can be seen on almost every game drive. Wasgomuwa National Park is believed to have the highest den- sities of Sloth Bear in Sri Lanka. However due to habituation, the nature of the terrain, the density of Palu Trees (a factor dur- ing the fruiting season) and other factors yet to be determined, Yala is the best place for viewing Sloth Bear. In fact it is the best place in the world for seeing the Sloth Bear. Wilpattu Na- tional Park, is the next best location for Sloth Bear although more data needs to be accumulated to gain an idea of strike rates.


The concept of a Big Five label has its advantages in appealing to a broader tourism market through the big tour operators who can feature a Sri Lanka’s Big Five tour. In parallel, I would like to see the branding for Sri Lanka as the Ultimate Island Safari. This enables the serious wildlife enthusiasts and photographers and writers who will travel with the smaller specialist tour operators to understand that Sri Lanka’s riches extend beyond the Big Five.


How Sri Lanka’s Big Five rank for ease of viewing

Species World Asia
Blue Whale 1 1
Sperm Whale Top 10 1
Asian Elephant 1 1
Leopard 1 1
Sloth Bear 1 1


Strike rates within Sri Lanka for Sri Lanka’s Big Five

Species Strike Rate for Game Drives/Sailings
Blue Whale 90% during season off Mirissa
Sperm Whale Provisionally, somewhere between 1 in 3 and 1 in 5 from Kalpitiya during February/March. More data needs to be gathered to see if the rate is bet- ter and the span of the viewing window.
Asian Elephant 100% in Uda Walawe and during The Gathering at Minneriya (and Kaudulla).
Leopard 1 in 3 at Yala. There are periods when it is 1 in 2.
Sloth Bear 1 in 5 in Yala. Improves to 1 in 3 during fruiting of Palu in June/July.



The many people who have helped me over the years are more fully acknowledged in the books I have written. In the specific context of this article I would like to thank Dr Charles Anderson and Dr Shyamala Ratnayeke for answering questions. I would also like to thank Chitral Jayathilake and Srilal Miththapala for supporting and in some cases taking the lead subsequently for some of the ideas I have introduced on position- ing Sri Lanka for The Gathering, Leopard Safaris, Best for Blue Whale, Primate Safaris, etc. Sri Lanka’s rise to eminence for whale watching would not have taken place if Dr Charles Anderson had not shared his research insights with me giving me the oppor- tunity to engage in field work and become the bridge between science and commerce.


This article was first published in Hi Magazine as cited below.
de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). Sri Lanka’s Big Five. Hi Magazine. Series 8, Volume 2. September 2010. Pages 198-202.

leopards in sri lankaBest for Big Game Safaris outside Africa 

Sri Lanka is the Best for Big Game Safaris outside Africa. Its Big Five are the Elephant, Leopard, Sloth Bear, Blue and Sperm Whale. Few countries can rival its combination of Big Game safari animals, species densities and tourism infrastructure. It is undoubtedly the Ultimate Island Safari. 

Best for Blue Whale and Top Ten for Sperm Whales
Sri Lanka is Best for Blue Whale, the largest animal that has ever lived on earth. Mirissa and Trincomalee offer the best Blue Whale viewing in the world.Kalpitiya is among the top ten sites in the world for the Sperm Whale, the biggest toothed whale.Mirissa offers the best chance in the world to see both Blue and Sperm Whales on the same whale watching.

The Gathering of Elephants
The largest seasonally recurring concentration of wild elephants takes place between July to September at Minneriya (and Kaudulla) National Park. Over 300 elephants may gather on the seasonally drying lake bed. Listed by Lonely Planet as among the Top Ten wildlife spectacles in the world.Uda Walawe National Park is the only site in the world where wild elephants are guaranteed  on every game drive.

Best for Leopards
Yala National Park is the best place in the world for seeing and photographing leopards. Some areas in Block 1 have an average density of a leopard per square kilometer.

Sinharaja Bird Wave
The Sinharaja Bird Wave is the largest, longest studied and offers the longest viewing of bird waves.

Why a small island can lay claim to being the Best for
Big Game Safaris outside Africa

Why the small island of Sri Lanka is the best for Big Game outside Africa

Leopard safaris in Sri Lanka - Leopard safari Yala - Leopard safari WilpattuA British journalist told me that a shortcoming of Sri Lankan tourism is that it has failed to be bold in how it tells its big stories to the world. I am inclined to agree. One of these shortcomings is the failure to educate the world at large that Sri Lanka is the ‘Best for Big Game Safaris’ out- side Africa. It is difficult to imagine that the tiny island of Sri Lanka is the next best to the gigantic African continent for Big Game Safaris. But it is so.

However, Sri Lanka's tourism industry and Sri Lankans as a whole have failed to realize and publicize that Sri Lanka is the 'Best for Big Game Safaris’ outside Africa. This is a big and important story we need to tell. It is one of a suite of stories that we need to disseminate to strengthen Sri Lanka's brand as a tourism destination and in particular as a top destination for wildlife travel.

I first put into print my thoughts that 'Sri Lanka is the best for Big Game Safaris outside Africa' in the September 2010 issue of Hi Magazine. In the article, I explained why we need to create 'a symmetry of phrase' with Africa's Big Five and also factors such as selection criteria to put the Big Five branding on an intellectual framework.

This is a story I had begun to tell over the last nine years. In September 2009 the Sri Lanka Tourism Promotion Bureau (SLTPB) in London arranged for a press evening where Chi- tral Jayathilake and I spoke. The exhibition was themed 'Sri Lanka: The Ultimate Island Safari'. In a sense this is the wid- er and bigger story. However, in terms of carrying a punch line to the media and the public, a subset of that story, that we are the best for big game outside Africa is more potent.

whale watching sri lankaFor several years now my team has developed the literature to articulate that Sri Lanka is the best for Leopard and Blue Whale. We have the largest, predictably occurring seasonal concentration of wild elephants anywhere in the world: ‘The Gathering of Elephants’ at Minneriya (and Kaudulla Na- tional Park). More recently, I have ramped up the publicity that Sri Lanka is the best place in the world for seeing and photographing the Sloth Bear. I am also drawing attention that it may be the largest tropical bear or if not one of the biggest (I understand from Dr. Shyamala Ratnayeke that as data is still thin on the ground for tropical bears, there is still some uncertainty in how it ranks in terms of weight).

The whale watching which I helped to popularize in May 2008 from Mirissa and since March 2010 from Kalpitiya shows that Sri Lanka is in the top ten for seeing Sperm Whales. I have used these five animals to brand a Sri Lankan Big Five to rein- force Sri Lanka's position as a Big Game Safari destination in a similar vein to Africa.

Why is the 'Best outside Africa' branding justified? Firstly, let me point out that Sri Lanka does not match Africa as a Big Game Safari destination. It is the nearest counterpart. Anyone familiar with Africa will know that nowhere in the world do you have such a concentration of big game, all in the field of view at one time. The sheer numbers are unrivalled. This arti- cle is about what happens when you look outside Africa what is the next best continent or country? I am also using the pres- ence of five big, charismatic mammals, which inspire awe, are desirable and can be seen with a fair degree of likelihood as a benchmark for branding a destination for Big Game Safaris.

Before we look outside, let me also briefly re-visit one of the criteria for an animal to qualify as being branded for a ‘Big List’. An animal must be capable of inspiring awe and fear be- cause it does kill or can kill people. Let us start with the Afri- can Big sloth bear at wilpattu sri lankaFive which comprises of the Lion, Leopard, Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo. All of these animals are big and do kill peo- ple. The awe factor is necessary in the context of safari because subtly or otherwise there is an association with an element of danger. Not only must an animal be able to kill a human being, it must also be big to be physically frightening. Thus predators such as lions and herbivores such as elephants are typical big game safari animals. If you were on your own, unarmed and on foot, you would feel very vulnerable and quite likely fright- ened on encountering one of these animals. Mosquitoes may kill more people than any other visible animal, but one does not think of being on an adventurous safari if one went on a walk in an area with a risk of malaria. Similarly snakes kill, but not enough people will want to see them in much the same way as they would like to see lions and leopards. In Africa and Sri Lanka, the Big Five animals are mammals, but a destina- tion does not necessarily have to choose only mammals for its ‘Big List’.

The awe factor means that many countries outside Africa and Asia will struggle to find a Big Five. Let us briefly run through the continents. In North America we have the three bears, the Black, the Brown (and the sub-species the Grizzly) and the Po- lar Bear. There is also the Cougar or the Mountain Lion. Try- ing to see these four species, five if you add the Bison, in one tour will be difficult and enormously expensive. This would violate the criteria I have listed, that a tour for a Big List must work as a mainstream package tour in terms of time and cost.

birding in sri lankaIn South America one has the Jaguar which can kill people, but it is very elusive. Despite its huge bio-diversity, there are not many qualifiers for a Big Five list. The same can be said about Antarcti- ca, which does not have a single mammal which is feared, although seals can potentially inflict harm.

In Australia, one of the large species of Kangaroos can potentially disembowel and kill a human being. So can birds like the Cassowary, Emu and the Ostrich. However, although not explicitly stated, the discussion of cri- teria for animals which make it to a Big List centres around mammals. People are unlikely to fly to Australia mainly for a safari to see Kangaroos, although people do go there and to Antarctica for their wildlife as a whole.

In Western Europe we have the Brown Bear and in certain Eastern European countries we also have the Euro- pean Bison, which could potentially kill a human being. The Wolf is once again spreading in Western Europe and although it does not kill people, has always inspired awe and fear and can be considered in a European Big Three. If we were to remove the criteria of charismatic predators which are feared for killing people, animals such as the Lynx could make it into a list. Parts of Eurasia also have the Tiger, the Siberian Tiger being a special example. But as you can see, outside Africa and Asia, one will not find five big mammals which inspire awe and fear with their potential to kill people. It tends to be such mammals that fuel the desire for Big Game Safaris.

elephants in sri lankaIn Asia, with the exception of India and Sri Lanka, large mammals are very difficult to see. In India, it may be easier to go in search of tigers than it would be for elephants. The Leopard and Sloth Bear are difficult to see. Since 2001, when the team at Jetwing Eco Holidays began to market Sri Lanka for its leopards and big game, wildlife photog- raphers and wildlife enthusiasts from India are increasingly visiting Sri Lanka to see and photograph Leopard, Sloth Bear and Elephant. When the ease of viewing or strike factor is taken into account for these three mammals, Sri Lanka ranks well ahead of India. Sri Lanka does not have the most charismatic land mammal of Asia, the ti- ger. It also does not have the Asiatic Lion which is restricted to the Gir Forest in the state of Gujarat in India or the Rhino. However Sri Lanka compensates with two awesome animals, the Blue Whale, the largest animal to have ever lived in the planet and the Sperm Whale, the largest toothed whale. India is not short of animals for a Big Five.

But the distances which need to be travelled and the time required makes it prohibitively expensive and dif- ficult, compared to Sri Lanka. When the likelihood and cost of seeing and photographing four or five charis- matic mammals (my barometer for big game safari potential) on a two week safari is considered, Sri Lanka is by far the better destination.

If you compare India and Sri Lanka as destinations for seeing Asian wildlife and mammals in particular, it is also the case that it is much easier in Sri Lankan national parks. Yala is only rivalled in Asia by the core zone of Corbett National Park for the ease of seeing mammals. Mammals are relatively easy to see in Sri Lanka and expectations of most visitors when it comes to safari pivot around seeing mammals.

elephant gathering at minneriya sri lankaAccording to classical bio-geographical theory, small islands don’t have large animals. Sri Lanka contradicts this theory. This is because until relatively recently in geological terms (about 10,000 years ago), it was not a small island. The sea levels were much lower during the last glaciation and Sri Lanka was a part of the large Eurasian land mass. This resulted in large land animals being on what subsequently became isolated as an island by rising sea levels. What is more, we find large land animals in significant concentrations giving rise to spectacular wildlife viewing spectacles like ‘The Gathering’.

To summarize on some of my claims expressed above, it is pertinent to reproduce here two tables. Table 1 lists the criteria for an animal to qualify for a Big List and Table 2 lists the ranking of my Big Five nominees in terms of their ranking for ease of viewing in the world and in Asia.

My objective behind creating tags such as ‘Sri Lanka is Best for Big Game outside Africa’, ‘Sri Lanka: The Ulti- mate Island Safari: and ‘Sri Lanka’s Big Five’ is to create livelihoods in rural Sri Lanka through wildlife tourism by monetizing Sri Lanka’s bio-diversity. I do hope more people will take stock of Sri Lanka’s uniqueness, a tiny island that is a big game safari counterpart to a vast continent. It is now time for more people to carry the story that Sri Lanka is the Best for Big Game outside Africa and to see the island as a continental alternative.

This article was first published as cited below.

de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2010). [Our Big Five]. Why Sri Lanka is the Best for Big Game Safaris outside Africa. The Sunday Times Plus. Sunday 18 October 2010. Features. Page 6.




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 5 star rating

The trip you suggested and organized through Eco Team gave us a good overview. We liked specially the Mahoora Explorer in Wilpattu and Udawalawe.

Anita & Ueli Letsch - Switzerland
29th March 2017

 5 star rating

Everyone has been so friendly and helpful. We have had such an excellent trip. The safaris in Yala and Udawalawe were a wonderful experience. We have many memories to take home and we saw so many wildlife. Chauffeur Guide were knowledgeable. The Big Game safari Camps were excellent, best service we have ever had. Attention to details very welcoming and food very good.

Mark Foyn - England
1st August 2017

5 star rating

Rukan was wonderful and we enjoyed his careful driving as well as his company throughout our journey. His English is very good and we had great conversations. It was nice to gain insight into the history and culture of Sri Lanka by speaking with him.
Our safari guide in Yala (Kasun) was the best! We saw 6 leopards and 3 sloth bears over the course of 4 outings. Compliments to him and the driver. I was worried that 4 safaris would not be enough, but that turned out not to be the case with their expert tracking skills.

We really enjoyed most of the lodges, especially Kings Pavilion, Chena Huts and Buckingham Place. Great rooms, service, and restaurants. Both Buckingham and Kings Pavilion surprised Rick with birthday cakes either in our room or at dinner. Buckingham also had a special table set up for us with flowers and decorations and the staff presented a birthday card signed by all of them!

All the food was wonderful both at the buffets and when ordering a la carte from menus. Pack meals during safaris were also very good with plenty of variety.

We both had a great time in your beautiful country. Thank you for all your help in planning this adventure. I would definitely recommend Eco Tours to my friends and family if they ever want to visit Sri Lanka. You really made us feel special.

Elaine Lee, USA

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