Nature conservation has a long and illustrious history in Sri Lanka – the island’s first wildlife reserve is said to have been established by King Devanampiya Tissa in the third century BC, while many of the national parks and reserves that make up today’s well-developed network date back to colonial times and earlier.
Administered by the Department of Wildlife Conservation, these protected areas cover almost fifteen percent of the island’s land area and encompass a wide variety of terrains, from the high-altitude grasslands of Horton Plains National Park to the coastal wetlands of Bundala. Almost all harbour a rich selection of wildlife and birds, and several are also of outstanding scenic beauty.
Sri Lanka’s national parks include two marine parks at Hikkaduwa and Pigeon Island. The most touristed are Yala, Uda Walawe, Horton Plains, Bundala, Minneriya and Kaudulla. A number of parks lie in areas affected by the civil war, and several were closed for long periods during the fighting, including Maduru Oya, Gal Oya, Wilpattu and Kumana (formerly Yala East), although all have now reopened, while a new park is being established at Mullaitivu in one of the expanses of jungle which once sheltered the LTTE.
There are numerous other protected areas dotted across the island that are run under government supervision. These are categorized variously as nature reserves, strict nature reserves (entry prohibited) and sanctuaries. In general these places possess important botanical significance but lack the wildlife found in the national parks, as at (to name just one example) the unique, World Heritage-listed Sinharaja Forest Reserve, Sri Lanka’s last undisturbed pocket of tropical rainforest.
Visiting national parks
All national parks keep the same opening hours: daily from 6.30am to 6.30pm. Other than in Horton Plains, where you’re allowed to walk, you’ll have to hire a jeep (or boat) to take you around. There are usually jeeps (plus drivers) for hire at park entrances, although it’s generally easier to hire one at the place you’re staying to take you to and from the park, as well as driving you around it. Count on around $30–45 for half a day’s jeep (and driver) hire, or $60–80 for a full day.
All vehicles are allocated an obligatory “tracker”, who rides with you and acts as a guide. Some are very good, but standards do vary considerably and unfortunately many trackers speak only rudimentary English. One way of insuring yourself against the chance of getting a dud tracker is to go with a good jeep driver – the best are expert wildlife trackers and spotters in their own right, and may also carry binoculars and wildlife identification books. Note that except at designated spots, you’re supposed to stay in your vehicle at all times; in Yala, you’re also obliged to keep the hood on your jeep up.
The basic entrance charge per person ranges from between $12 at the less popular parks up to $15 at Yala and Uda Walawe and $20 at Horton Plains (locals, by contrast, pay entrance fees of around $0.25). This basic charge is significantly inflated by the various additional charges which are levied, including a “service charge” ($8/vehicle), which covers the services of your tracker, a “vehicle charge” (Rs.250/vehicle); plus tax on everything at fifteen percent (the exact entrance cost per person thus becomes slightly cheaper the more people you share a vehicle with). Children aged 6–12 pay half price; under-6s get in free. The bottom line is that, once you’ve factored in the cost of transport as well, you’re looking at something like $75–100 for two people for a half-day visit to a national park.
Staying in national parks
It’s also possible to stay in many national parks, most of which are equipped with simple but adequate bungalows for visitors. Unfortunately these are difficult to book – they have to be reserved in person at the Department of Wildlife Conservation, which is inconveniently located on the outskirts of Colombo – and the best ones tend to get snapped up very quickly. The extra charges levied on foreigners are a further disincentive: it typically costs around $150 a night for two people to stay in a park bungalow – not far off what you’d pay for a night in a Colombo five-star hotel.
You can also camp in any of the national parks: again you’ll have to pay two days’ entrance charges, plus around $15 in camping fees (plus, of course, your transport costs). You’ll also have to pre-book a camping space through the Department of Wildlife Conservation in Colombo.
Sri Lanka is one of the world’s most biodiverse islands, and eco-tourism is beginning to play an increasingly major role in the island’s tourism industry. The island has some splendid eco-lodges and eco-oriented hotels.
Birdwatching is well established, and even if you’ve never previously looked at a feathered creature in your life, the island’s outstanding range of colourful birdlife can prove surprisingly fascinating. A number of companies run specialist tours, while bird-spotting usually forms a significant part of trips to the island’s national parks – although you’ll see birds pretty much everywhere you go, even in the middle of Colombo.
Elephants can be seen in virtually every national park in the country, at the famous Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage and in temples and at work on roads around the country. For leopards, the place to head for is Yala National Park, while whale-watching trips start from Mirissa, just down the coast, or alternatively from Uppuveli on the east coast. There’s also superb dolphin-watching at Kalpitiya (plus the chance of seeing more whales). Sri Lanka is also an important nesting site for sea turtles; turtle watches are run nightly at the villages of Kosgoda and Rekawa.