The country of Sri Lanka, also known as the ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean’, has a surprising number of national parks for a small island – 26, to be exact. While major sanctuaries like Yala (a park situated in the south) and Sinharaja (a tropical rainforest near the central highlands) get all the attention, people tend to neglect the country’s oldest national park: Wilpattu. Not only is it the oldest sanctuary, but it’s a haven for Sri Lanka’s top predator: the leopard. So, if you are a wildlife photographer or enthusiast dying to see a wild leopard, Wilpattu might be the place for you!
Geography and History
A four-hour drive from the capital city of Colombo, Wilpattu derives its name from the Tamil language, which translates as the ‘Land of Lakes’. This is due to a number of ‘villus’, or natural water-basins found all throughout the park. These water-basins are literally the fountains of life here, as they sustain its eclectic wildlife. According to legend, an ancient prince named Saliya eloped with a low-caste girl called Asokamala to Wilpattu, where its thick jungle provided a great hideout. Also, an ancient Prince named Vijaya (known to be the father of the local Sinhala race – the country’s major demographic) landed on the shores near Wilpattu. The remains of Vijaya’s castle can still be seen here. Unfortunately, this park was closed to the public for years during the Civil War and was only re-opened recently.
The best hours to visit the park are between 6 to 9 AM and 3 to 6 PM. Why? Because that’s when you are most likely to observe wildlife. Leopards are often spotted early in the morning and late afternoon, so it’s imperative to find a place near the park to stay during your visit. There are several bungalows inside the park, but these need to be booked in advance and more often than not they are all taken by locals. Luckily, there are several comfy hotels and guest houses near the entrance that also offer the luxury of providing patrons with breakfast/lunch picnics for a safari.
As the largest sanctuary in the country, Wilpattu has an abundance of wildlife; including deer, boar, birds, jackals, sloth bears, elephants and leopards. Needlessly to say, during the intense Civil War, most of these animals were either killed for food or fatally wounded from landmines. The main victim was the leopard, also known as the ‘apex’ predator in Sri Lanka because it has scarce competition here.
Sri Lankan Leopard
Wilpattu was where I first encountered a leopard in the wild. But it was no easy task – the sighting came after two unsuccessful days, and it was a truly magical experience: heading out of the park on a safari jeep with my friends, we saw a magnificent leopard on the road. It was amazing that several hours from the capital city one could encounter a wild creature such as this. The same could be said in neighboring India too, where wild leopards and humans live side-by-side in the city of Mumbai. Yet the difference was this: unlike India, where leopards have competition from tigers and Africa where they have to compete with lions, Sri Lankan leopards have no equal predators. Hence, they are less arboreal (tree-dwelling) with diurnal habits, and quite bold; which is why – more often than not – local leopards are seen on open trails. Plus, unlike Indian leopards who are known to prey on humans, there have been few man-eaters in Sri Lanka. Even though there is a growing human-leopard conflict, these encounters pale in comparison to other countries. Thus, these unique traits make leopard-watching easier in Sri Lanka.
Wildlife experts believe that Yala National Park, another sanctuary based near the southern coast of Sri Lanka, has the highest density of leopards in the world. It’s believed that there’s one leopard per square kilometer, which is the highest density in the world. This is partly due to the fact that prey species, such as spotted deer and wild boar are common in these parks. Add the fact that there’s hardly any competition for the leopards, it’s a given that their numbers are so high. What about Wilpattu? Well, there’s a healthy population there too – local experts have counted at least 70 individual leopards in the park. Also, there are parts of Wilpattu that are still inaccessible to man, so a more exact number is hard to ascertain.
Wildlife is unpredictable as the weather here in Sri Lanka. It’s not like Africa where there are vast open plains for miles to see animals in the open; at Wilpattu, there’s a lot of thick brush, undergrowth and jungle. Photographers often tour for days without a sighting, but eventually they strike gold and the sightings are superb. The best times to see leopards, as mentioned earlier, are early mornings and late afternoons. Mornings are when leopards first come to life, and evenings are better – if you are lucky, you might just get to see a leopard hunt. Leopards are normally nocturnal animals, so they start the hunting process around twilight. I was once fortunate enough to see a leopard pounce out of nowhere to attack a monitor lizard! So, if you are tourist, the best option would be to have your hotel or safari guide make you breakfast and lunch, so you can eat inside the park during mealtimes without having to come out for meals. There’s a designated location for that in the park, where restrooms are available too. That way, you can make the most out of your tour. The best months to visit would be from July-September. That’s when the dry season begins (peaking in August), and often there are sightings near waterholes, when leopards come to quench their thirst. Ideally, you’d see many safari jeeps with photographers flocked around these waterholes, dying to get that shot of a leopard drinking water.
Mind you, leopards aren’t the only attraction in the park. With regard to wildlife, Sloth Bears can also be seen here, especially during the dry season. And if you ask your safari guide, he can take you to the exact spot that King Vijaya – considered the ‘father’ of the Sri Lankan race – landed in Sri Lanka. The coastal scenes are a sight to behold! So, if you are a leopard, wildlife or nature enthusiast, make sure to visit Wilpattu National Park during your visit to Sri Lanka! If you want to find out more about the flora and fauna of this park, visit: https://www.wilpattu.com/Leopards-of-willpattu.php