Wildlife & Birding

Sri Lanka offers the ultimate island safari experience

As Indian Ocean’s beautiful little pearl island, Sri Lanka never fails to showcase its natural beauties, rich ecological values and stunning bio diversity. The natural treasures range from hillside wonders, pristine beaches to rich dense wildlife sanctuaries.

The country has always impressed the whole world with its vivid bio diversity. Considered as one of the most ecologically rich countries in the whole world, Sri Lanka aces high on the Biological endemism with 16% of the fauna and 23% of flowering plants in its wilderness.

Venturing into the oceans surrounding the island, one will definitely come across a marine mammal extravaganza! The largest animal in the world, the Blue Whale is found in residence off the shores of Sri Lanka, along with other salt water mammals such as the “Ocean Hunter”, Killer Whale and the acrobatic spinner Dolphin. Apart from the marine creatures, the shores provide beauty with its mesmerizing Coral reefs in Hikkaduwa and Kaplitiya.

The land is home to some of the great herbivores such as the Asian Elephant, the Asiatic Water Buffalo, Sambar, Spotted Deer and Wild Boar which can be found in a range of habitats. The iconic predator of the Sri Lankan wilds is the Leopard, which is the largest Feline species in Sri Lanka. The Sloth Bear is another enigmatic species roaming the dry zone forests of the island. However when it comes to the rivers, marshes, lagoons, and mangroves, lurks the crocodile, an ancient remnant of prehistoric times.

Sri Lanka is also a hot spot for birding with a vast plethora of species ranging from residents, migrants and endemics found nowhere else on earth. It is home to over 400 avian species including 34 endemics, which are unique to the island and are mostly limited to a particular habitat.

The natural landscapes of the country is surprisingly vast in relation to the land mass. In the coastal area's one can find riverine mangroves, estuaries as well as salt flats. The wilderness area's range from dry zone thorny scrub forests such as Yala and Bundala National Parks, to dense evergreen forests in areas such as Wilpattu and Wasgamuwa National Parks. The south is also home to the country's famous tropical rainforests such as the Sinharaja World Heritage Site, Kanneliya Forest Reserve and Kelani Valley Rainforest.

The island’s highlands provide stunning views for a perfect backdrop and landscapes giving a breathtaking spectacle to all those nature enthusiasts seeking hillside sceneries such as Haputale, Knuckles Range and Worlds End. Scattered widely across the highlands are mesmerizing waterfalls such as Ramboda, Bambarakanda, Diyaluma, Dunhinda and Bakers.

With the lush bio diversity and natural habitats of the country, Sri Lanka is considered the ultimate destination for exciting wildlife safaris, exotic bird watching and experiencing endemic wilderness.

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Asian Elephant

The Asian Elephant (Elephas maximus), is the iconic king of the Sri Lankan jungles. As the largest land animal found in the country (and next only to the African Elephant in the world scale), the Asian Elephant is a flagship species which is not only an ecological importance but a cultural value to the people of Sri Lanka.

Elephants were once widespread across the country but today are found mostly in the dry lowlands. The elephants in the highlands were declared as vermin and killed in the era of tea plantation during the period of the British. Found in ever shrinking areas of forest in the country, the numbers during the last census was estimated at around 6,000 animals.

Presently over 20% of the island’s land is declared as protected wilderness areas in the form of national parks, sanctuaries and strict natural reserves. Elephants can be seen in virtually all the dry-zone national parks and Sri Lanka remains one of the most accessible and top spots for observing these gentle giants.

“The Gathering of Elephants” which takes up from June to October in Minneriya is one of the best wildlife experiences one could gain while in Sri Lanka. Each afternoon during the period, around 150 - 200 individual elephants come out of the forest in to the open to graze on the fresh green pasture by the water’s edge at Minneriya and Kaudulla national parks.

The Elephant Transit Home in Uda Walawe is a joint initiative undertaken by a number of NGO’s with the Department of Wildlife Conservation, which focusses on looking after wild orphaned elephant calves and aims to rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild. The Sounthern Yala and Kumana National Parks too shelter Elephant herds along with Sloth bears, Leopards and other species.


The Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya), is the iconic apex predator of the Sri Lankan jungles. The leopard is the most successful of the big cats with the ability to survive in any habitat, from scrub jungles, to rainforests to open savannahs. Feeding on a wide variety of prey species from spotted deer, sambhur and wild boar to smaller species such as land monitors, black naped hare and even village dogs they are the ultimate survivors. Leopards prefer hunting at night, but are also active during dawn and dusk, and daytime hours. They rarely haul their kills into trees, which is likely due to the lack of competition from larger predators such as Lions, Hyenas and Tigers which pose a serious threat to leopards in Africa and India. As a result, Sri Lankan leopards are much bolder and within protected areas such as Yala and Wilpattu National parks where there is a relative abundance of prey, the big cats are bolder and are readily encountered during the day time. Since leopards are the apex predators they don't need to protect their prey, but do on occasion get into conflict with the Mugger Crocodile as well as a scavenging Sloth Bear and herds of Wild Boar.

The leopard hunts by silently stalking its prey until it is within striking distance where it unleashes a burst of speed to quickly pursue and pounce on its victim. The prey is usually dispatched with a single bite to the throat or through suffocation in the case of larger prey. There appears to be no particular breeding season for leopards with births scattered across months. A litter usually consists of 2-3 cubs. On a global context the leopard is classified as Near, however the subspecies Panthera Pardus Koitiya is classified as Endangered Threatened by the IUCN and are listed on CITES (Convention in the Trade In Endangered Species).

Seeing a Leopard in the wild, is one of the most rewarding experiences for an avid wildlife enthusiast or a photographer. Very elusive across Africa with the exception of high-end private concessions in South Africa and across India, Sri Lanka offers visitors the best opportunity to see these charismatic big cats in their natural habitat.

Yala Block I is believed to have the highest concentration of these big cats in the world and was described by veteran film maker and big cat expert Jonathan Scott as ‘God’s patch of land for leopards’. Wild game including Spotted Deer, Sambar, Buffalo and Wild Boar are abundant here, providing plenty of food for leopards. The scrub jungle and patches of grassland, provide the ideal terrain for hunting and the numerous man-made lakes dotted across the reserve provide a good supply of water year-round for the wildlife. Leopards can be seen sunning themselves at first light atop the rocky boulders or resting atop trees particularly during the heat of the day. Due to the abundance of prey and water, leopards in Yala have very small territories compared to other parts of the world, and at any given time, there are two to three sets of mothers with cubs which maybe encountered on a visit to Yala. The male leopards here are muscular and impressive in size and boldly patrol their territories in daylight hours which are often marked along the dirt roads used by the safari jeeps. During the dry season, a waterhole stakeout provides the best opportunity to watch the leopards come into the open and quench their thirst.

Closed for the better part of 30 years due to the civil war, the Wilpattu National Park which re-opened in 2010, is another top spot for watching the Sri Lankan Leopard in a very different terrain. Wilpattu comprises of dry evergreen forest amongst which the picturesque sand rimmed villus which are the park’s natural water sources are scattered throughout the jungle. One of the highlights during a visit to Wilpattu is to encounter a leopard resting in the white sands in the open by a villu.

Despite good chances of encountering leopards, which by nature are elusive animals, it is recommended to factor in a minimum of 3-4 half-day game drives in order to get the best opportunities to view and photograph these iconic creatures along with the other wildlife seen in the jungles of Sri Lanka’s dry lowlands.

Sloth Bear

The Sloth Bear (Melursus ursinus) when initially classified was mistakenly categorized under the sloth family in the early 1700’s. This miscategorization gave rise the name and the error was first discovered when a specimen was shipped to Europe from India in 1810. This species of bear is stocky with a long and extremely shaggy black coat and a V or Y shaped marking on the chest. They have a cream-coloured muzzle, and large prehensile lips and a long tongue. Their paws are equipped with well-developed hook-like claws that enable them to climb trees and dig for termites. These claws can also be used with deadly force against intruders. The head and body grows up to 6 feet in length, and can weigh up to 140kg for a male and 95 kg for a female. Very little is still known about this creature’s life which is shrouded in mystery. Sloth Bears have 2-3 cubs at a time, and the young bear cubs can be seen carried on the mother’s back. The Sloth Bear is highly threatened and its numbers have plummeted due to rampant deforestation and human encroachments as it is highly dependent on natural forests for its food sources.

Being a primarily nocturnal species, they set about their forage from dusk until dawn. A very shy and reclusive animal, seeing one during the day in the wild is a rare occurrence. Feeding predominantly on termites, they use their large claws to dig at the mounds. Once a hole is opened, they blow away the excess dirt and thereafter suck out the insects through a gap in its front teeth. While doing so they close their nostrils and use their lips like a vacuum nozzle. Apart from insects the bears feed on a wide variety of fruits like Palu, Dam, Weera as well as bees honey. They are also known to feed on carrion (carcass of a dead animal), with sightings of them feeding on the entrails and organs of fresh leopard kills.

One of the best times to see one out in the daytime is when these seasonal fruits ripen which happens seasonally from around May to July. During these months, the bears go on a feeding frenzy, foraging around the trees and even found high up on the branches feeding on the ripe berries. Bears are known to occasionally get intoxicated by feeding on fermented fruit and can sometimes be seen ambling around or sleeping in the open.

The sloth bear has to quench its thirst every night and cannot go on for prolonged periods of time without water. Sloth bears use a wide variety of facial expression and calls to communicate with one another. Certain sounds are similar to that of humans, which makes the bear one of the most dangerous and deceptive animals to encounter while on foot. Many a tale of vedda’s and poachers being attacked, killed and maimed by these animals. One of the primary reasons for this is the poor eye sight, which results in the animal getting startled when someone or something is too close. The bear tends to get on his two hind feed and attack with its long, sharp claws and teeth. Found exclusively in heavily forested areas within the dry zone, these rare animals are often seen out in the open in rocky outcrops and caves in the dry zone forests.

In the south of Sri Lanka, Sloth Bear can be encountered in Yala, Kumana and Lunugamvehera national parks along with the Wilpattu National Park in the north-west. The stretch around Maradan Maduwa in Wilpattu, where research is currently being undertaken has revealed a high density of Sloth Bears, and is an area which they can be seen year-round.

Cloud Forests of Sri Lanka

Though Sri Lanka is a tropical island, the land has some of the most contrasting landscapes which can be compared to that of a much larger continent. At its centre, are the mountainous highlands rising all the way up to 2,500m above sea level. These highlands were historically known as the “Maya Rata” by the ancient Sinhalese, and was a land shrouded in clouds and forest for centuries. This was a land seldom ventured and respected by the kings as the key source of all the rivers and streams flowing through the country. The highlands was where all the wild animals such as elephants, sloth bear and leopard used to roam, before the British colonials cleared most of the forest for coffee and then tea plantations. Most of the wildlife including thousands of elephants were shot down as vermin.

What remains of these forests can be seen at Peak Wilderness Sanctuary and Horton Plains National Park as well as the Hakgala sanctuary along with certain areas of the Knuckles mountain range which is around 0.05% of the island’s land area. What is unique about these forests is the high level of endemism, as well as unique adaptations of flora and fauna to the climate and elevation. Generally a “Cloud Forest” are those found above an elevation of 1000m. The climate is clearly much cooler than the lowlands, and are often shrouded in mist. Almost 34% of the country’s endemic trees, shrubs and herbs can only be found in these forests. The mean temperature in these forests range between 15-20 Celcius. During certain months such as December to February ground frost can be seen. Rainfall is high in these forest with an average rainfall of 200-2500mm.

A key feature of these type of forests are stunted, twisted trees mainly Dipterocarpus. The leaves of these trees are small and thick. Often the trees are covered in moss, and lichens. The plains bordering these forests are often scattered with Rhododendron. The undershrub is often dominated by Strobilanthes. These cloud forests boasts even more endemic species than the lowland rainforests. Around 50% of the country’s flowering plants and 51% of endemic vertebrates are found in these forests. Some of the key endemic birds found in these forests are the Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, Sri Lanka Dull Blue Flycatcher, Yellow Eared Bulbul, Sri Lanka Wood Pidgeon, Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush, Jungle Fowl, Sri Lanka White Eye and the ever elusive Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush or Arrenga.

A unique mammal found in these forests is the montane version of the endemic Purple Faced Leaf Monkey, also known as the bear monkey due to the shaggy coat. Elephants used to be found in these forests but are now virtually extinct except for a small population in the Peak Wilderness Sancturary. Sambar the island’s largest species of deer can be found grazing in the open plans and large herds can be seen in the Horton Plains National Park. The country’s top predator, the leopard which is a master of stealth has managed to remain elusive and stay hidden from man and still survives in the central highlands in forest patches and around the vicinity of tea estates. Some of the unique reptile species found are the Rhino Horned Lizard’s and the Pigmy Lizards, both of whom are endemic. Along with these there are many species of endemic frogs, and new species being discovered every day.

Endemic Birds of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is home to 34 endemic avian species including seven proposed endemic species found nowhere else in the world. “Bird Life International” recognizes Sri Lanka as one of the most Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs) in the world. Many of the endemic species are found in the lowland rainforests and montane cloud forests which are isolated habitats that are surrounded completely by the dry lowlands.

The largest tract of natural rain forest in Sri Lanka, the Sinharaja Forest Reserve is one of the highest birding locations where 28 of Sri Lanka’s 34 endemic species have been recorded including the recently discovered ‘Serendib Scopes Owl’ and other rarities such as the ‘Sri Lanka Spur fowl, Chestnut-backed Owlet, and White-faced Starling’. The Sinharaja mix species Bird wave is believed to be the longest studied and the largest in the world.

The Victoria Park and Hakgala Botanical Gardens in the Central Highlands provide good opportunities for viewing highland endemics including the ‘Sri Lanka White-eye, Dull-blue Flycatcher and Yellow-eared Bulbul’. The lowland Kitulgala rainforests are famous for endemic birds just as the Hortain Plains where endemic ‘Arrenga’ or ‘Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush’ and the ‘Sri Lanka Bush Warbler’ can be observed.

In the dry-zone jungles, the most commonly encountered endemic is the brightly coloured ‘Sri Lanka Jungle fowl’, the country’s national bird. ‘The Sri Lanka Wood shrike, Sri Lanka Swallow and the Sri Lanka Flame back’ are some of the other commonly seen endemics in the dry-zone.

Keep an eye out for these endemic species while on your Birding Safari

  1. Sri Lanka Spurfowl
  2. Sri Lanka Junglefowl
  3. Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon
  4. Sri Lanka Green Pigeon
  5. Sri Lanka Hanging Parrot
  6. Layard’s Parakeet
  7. Red-faced Malkoha
  8. Green-billed Coucal
  9. Serendib Scops Owl
  10. Chestnut-backed Owlet
  11. Sri Lanka Grey Hornbill
  12. Yellow-fronted Barbet
  13. Crimson-fronted Barbet
  14. Sri Lanka Blue Magpie
  15. Black-capped Bulbul
  16. Yellow-eared Bulbul
  17. Sri Lanka Bush Warbler
  18. Brown-capped Babbler
  19. Sri Lanka Scimitar Babbler
  20. Orange-billed Babbler
  21. Ashy-headed Laughingthrush
  22. Sri Lanka White-eye
  23. Sri Lanka Myna
  24. White-faced Starling
  25. Sri Lanka Whistling Thrush
  26. Spot-winged Thrush
  27. Sri Lanka Scaly Thrush
  28. Dull-blue Flycatcher
  29. Sri Lanka Drongo
  30. Legge’s Flowerpecker
  31. Crimson-backed Flameback
  32. Sri Lanka Flameback*
  33. Common Woodshrike*
  34. Sri Lanka Swallow*

Marine Mammals of Sri Lanka

The wonder of Sri Lanka’s natural heritage begins with its rich oceans and these waters are a haven for marine mammals. These animals can be divided into Whales, Dolphins, Porpoises and Dugongs. Marine mammals breathe air, reproduce live young mammals who feed on their mother’s milk.

There are 28 species of marine mammals in Sri Lanka, including six species of great whales. The whales known as “Thalmaha” in Sinhalese are the leviathans of the deep and are among the largest animals on earth. Whales breathe air and hence come up to the surface to breathe, which provides a small window to observe these animals. The “waterfall” effect of a lifted tail fluke is the highlight at a whale sighting.

The largest of whales is the Blue Whale which is recorded to grow to lengths exceeding 90 feet. The “Blues” off Sri Lankan waters are slightly smaller with lengths up to 70-75 feet, and is speculated to be unique subspecies. As residents of Sri Lankan waters, these creatures are to be seen in Mirissa and Waligama during November to April.

Known as the “Elephants of the Sea”, Sperm Whales as a herd, float around the coasts of Sri Lanka during March - April. These creatures have the sharpest teeth and are said to be the best divers in the ocean reaching down 300-800m into the deep waters.

The Sri Lankan seas are also home to many species of dolphins and porpoises. The most numerous and interesting are the Spinner Dolphins which are found in super pods numbering a few thousand individuals. Found quite commonly across the waters of Sri Lanka, they are witnessed often in Kalpitiya.

Naturally seen around the Lankan coasts, the “Wolves of the Sea”- the Killer Whale or Orca is in-fact the largest species of Dolphins. Other species such as Risso Dolphin, False Killer Whales, Piliot Whales, Bottlenose Dolphin and Indo Pacific Hump Backed Dolphin are seen from time to time, but are rare visitors.

There is yet another mysterious marine mammal found off Sri Lankan waters, known as the Dugong. Dugongs inhabit Sri Lanka's Northwest coast, including Kalpitiya, the Bar Reef Sanctuary and the Puttlam Lagoon. Very rarely seen, these gentle mammals are under threat due to human hunting.

The whale and dolphin watching season is dependent on the pattern of the monsoonal rains. During the north-east monsoon, the best is off Kalpitiya and Mirissa between the months of November through to April. During the south-west monsoon from April through September, Trincomalee on the North East coast offers the best opportunities for whale and dolphin watching and many more.

The Iconic Blue Whale

The Blue Whale is the largest and heaviest animal presently existing on earth. Reaching 30m (98ft) in length and over 100 tons in weight. Long and slender, the blue whale's body can be various shades of bluish-grey dorsally and somewhat lighter underneath. The species ‘Balaenoptera musculu indica’, found in the Indian Ocean, may be another subspecies all together and is the only known race of Blue Whale found in tropical waters.

With a basic diet consisting small crustaceans known as krill, the primary threat for blue whales in Sri Lanka are the large number of shipping vessels colliding with them. There are several shipping lanes in the same habitat as the blues which become a threat to these giant mammals and there have been proposals raised by conservation groups to move out the shipping lanes further out to provide a safer passage for whales in these waters.

In Sri Lanka the continental shelf comes in towards the mainland off Mirissa in the south, Kalpitiya in the north-west and Trincomalee in the east coast, which can be dubbed as Sri Lanka’s whale watching triangle. Sri Lanka today is the best place in the world for Blue Whale sighting. International television documentary film crews, professional wildlife photographers and whale watching enthusiasts are flocking each year to Sri Lanka for Blue Whale encounters as a part of a day excursion.

Blue Whales are mostly seen in Mirissa and Trincomalee are two of the highly reported places for Blue Whale sightings. Blue Whales have been observed with young calves and very rare courtship displays have also been observed indicating that they are breeding off Sri Lankan waters.

Birdwatching in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is considered one of the top best destinations for Bird watching, with over 400 recorded species and 34 endemics found nowhere else in the world.

The wetland areas of the country’s capital Colombo is home to species such as Purple Heron, Lesser Whistling Duck, Purple Coot, Painted Stork, Asian Openbill, Black and Yellow Bitterns, Common Kingfisher, Black Headed Ibis and raptors including the Collared Scopes Owl, Shikra and the Oriental Honey Buzzard.

A boat ride in the north of Muthurajawala sanctuary, will take you around flocks of various water bird species.

The lowland endemics are most witnessed in tropical rainforests in and around Sinharaja, Kitulgala and Kanneliya. The dense cover area is an ideal habitat for elusive owl species such as the iconic Serendib Scops Owl, the Chestnut Backed Owlet, the Sri Lankan Super Fowl and the Green-billed Coucal.

oving to the central highlands, the climate play host to endemic species such as the Dull Blue Flycatcher, Sri Lanka Bush Warbler, the legendary Sri Lankan Whistling Thrush or Arrenga, Eurasian Blackbird, Velvet Fronted Nuthatch, Kashmir Flycatcher and Yellow Eared Bulbul.

The Dry Zone National Parks, such as Yala, Wilpattu and Bundala are home to Sri Lanka’s national bird the Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl. One of the most beautiful birds to be seen in these forests is the Indian Peacock and its colorful mating dance. Many raptor species such as the Crested Hawk Eagle, White Bellied Sea Eagle, Crested Serpent Eagle and Grey Headed Fish Eagle can be spotted quite often in these parks along with noisy flocks of Malabar-pied Hornbills.

During the onset of the northern hemisphere winter, a large number of migrant species from far away Europe, Siberia and such, leave due to the cold climate. These Migratory birds are often to be seen during the Birding Season. Known as the “Jewel of the Forest”, the beautiful Indian Pita is spotted annually in the same patch. The European Bee-eater is a rare winter visitor which is occasionally seen in Yala National Park for a few days each year.

The far north of the country, namely in Mannar and Jaffna is best visited during December to March with many migrant and resident water bird species conquering the skies. The Spot Billed Duck, Northern Shovelor, Garganeys and Northern Pintails are among the numerous duck species seen in water bodies across this landscape.

A 10 – 14 day Birding Holiday will allow you to visit a multitude of these places and observe around 250+ species in the winter months including most endemics. The industry’s best naturalist guides work with Classic Sri Lanka, who are experts at seeking out the most elusive of the endemics.

Butterflies of Sri Lanka

The island paradise of Sri Lanka’s dry lowlands, tropical rainforests, misty highlands and a multitude of wetlands, provide the ideal terrain for a multitude of butterfly species. At present, 245 different species of butterflies have been recorded in Sri Lanka including 23 endemic to this island. The national butterfly of Sri Lanka, the Ceylon Birdwing, which has a wingspan of 135mm is believed to be the largest butterfly in the country.

During the period of April and May, these butterflies fly up to the top of the sacred Adam’s Peak, (which is also known as “Samanala Kanda”) parading in hundreds and thousands.

Sinharaja World Heritage Site of the lowland rainforest is an ideal place to observe some of the endemic species such as the Red Spotted Duke, Clipper, Cruiser, Cingalese Bush Brown and the Tawny Rajah.

Closer to Colombo, the Talangama Wetlands and the Beddagana Wetland Park is home to most commonly seen butterflies of Sri Lanka. Species encountered here includes the Common Grass Yellow, Common and mottled Emigrants, Grey Pansy and the Common Sailor. Many other species such as the Blue and Glassy Tigers, Indian Cupid, Blue Banded and Common Parrots can also be observed.

Moving up to the highlands, Horton Plains National Park is known to spot the endemic and rare Ceylon Treebrown. This rare butterfly perches around eye level and often overlooked. Another rare species if the Painted Lady which is seldom seen, and can be found in this area.

One of the most captivating and intriguing species found here is the Green’s Silverline Lineblue butterfly. This rare species was discovered in 1896 but there have been no records ever since the first specimen was collected. Thereafter some scientists even removesd the species from the books. Amazingly in 2008 a female of this mysterious species was photographed laying eggs near the Worlds End cliff in the park.

Heading to the South, Yala National Park is a renowned destination for endemics. The common species such as the mud-sipping whites and yellows are widely witnessed, however during period times after monsoonal rains the most unique species in this area is the Small Salmon Arab.

Dragonflies and Damselflies

Mother Nature has designed a living helicopter in the form of dragonflies. This family of insects are called Odonanata which is divided to two sub orders namely, Anisoptera which are dragonflies and the other is Zygoptera which are called Damselflies. The main difference is that the Damselflies hold their wings closed along the length of their bodies while the Dragonflies hold their wings open and perpendicular to their bodies. There are at least 124 species identified in Sri Lanka with over 50% being endemic to the country.

These marvels of nature evolve in a fascinating way. Starting life in the water as voracious predators. These larvae use gills to breather underwater and once ready to change emerge from the water and simply unfolds its wings, splits its skin and become a fully formed Dragonfly. The newly hatched adult will take some time to strengthen its wings which might be a week where a glossy sheen exists on the wings.

There exists a high rate of endemism among Dragonflies, and out of all the 20 species identified of the Forest Damsels (Platysticidae) are endemic to the country. In the Clubtails (Gomphidae), 13 species out of the 14 in the country are endemic. There are many species yet to be discovered by science as there is very little known or studied in the country at the moment. One species lost to science after its discovery in 1859 by H.A Hagen is the Emerald Sri Lanka Spreadwing (Sinhalalestes orientalis) which was first observed in the Rambodde area. After over 150 years this species was re-discovered in the Balangoda- Dickoya area and hence the mystery and awe of these species are quite fascinating and full of surprises.

One of the best places to start ones tour is in the urban wilderness of the Talangama Wetland. There are around 37 species identified in this site. Five endemic species have been recorded here, and three of the most common species found here is the Adam’s Gem, Stripe-headed Threadtail and the Orange-faced Sprite. Two very enigmatic species found at dusk are the Dingy Duskflyer and the Foggy-winged Twister. These are beautiful specimens with the latter species having pale almost mist like patch on its wings and weaves a stunning figure eight pattern while in flight which gives the name Twister. While visiting the ancient rock fortress of Sigiriya it would be ideal to take a walk around the moat area surrounding the ancient site which is a great place for the Black-tipped and Blue Perchers which can be seen on the grassers and reeds along the small ponds. The Dancing Drowing can also be seen in waist high vegetation. The main attraction with regards to dragonflies is the Fiery Emperor which is a fascinating animal to observe as it dominates the air space.

The tropical lowland rainforest of Sinharaja as great for sighting the Shinning Gossamerwing which is found in rocky streams. The species named the Oriental Greenwing is seen in the vegetation which borers shady streams in the forest. Another endemic which is found in this area is the Black-tipped Flashwing as well as the Red-striped Threadtail. A new species identified by science in 2009 is the Vermillion Forester which is seen in this area. Areas inside and outside the forest reserve are excellent locations to find these winged dragons. Few other locations of interest to search for dragonflies and damselflies would be Bodhinagala, Kitulgala and Horton Plains National Park.

Trees of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka when viewed from the air is often seen as a blanket of green. The isle with its varied and diverse natural habitats has over 3,500 species of native flowering plants including a high number of endemic species.

The dry zone of Sri Lanka, which are some of the best wilderness areas left on the island has some of the most iconic tree species. The most notable in a dry zone landscape is the Palu Tree. During the months of June and July the trees attract Sloth bears due to the ripening of fruits. Sometimes the bears become intoxicated with the fermentation of these fruits which they gorge on. The bark of this tree is very rough and is a favorite rubbing post for elephants, and a favorite tree of the leopard to lie in. Another tree which is a miracle plant in South Asia which is the Kohomba (Margosa) tree, with its antiseptic leaves, and medicinal properties in the bark.

Another key dry zone species is the Malliththan which grows in saline soil, and is found in coastal areas. The small fruits it bears is an important food source for birds such as Sunbirds which feed on the nectar and the tree is a favourtie for snoozing spot for leopards in the Yala National Park. The Lunuwarana tree has a silvery trunk and by the time it comes into bloom, sheds all its leaves. This tree flowers against a blue sky and is symbolic of dry-zone national parks. The Divul is an iconic tree of these jungles which is also known as the wood apple, and bears a hard fruit which is a favorite among the elephants and people alike.

The lowland wet zone areas which have tropical rainforests which include the Sinharaja World Heritage Site are areas where almost half of the trees found are endemic to the country. The tall top canopy trees are mainly Dipterocarps which have winged seeds, which litter the forest floor when they bloom. Known as the “miracle fruit” by many the fruit from the Jack tree is used in many forms of food and is being billed as “the” food to battle a food crisis. These trees are found throughout the wet lowlands. They are not found within the deep forests and hence is believed to be an introduced fruit. The wild breadfruit tree is similar and contains a starchy fruit. The fruiting trees in these lowland rainforests attract mixed species feeding flocks of birds and other fruit eaters such as Purple-faced Leaf Monkeys and Giant Squirrels.

Most of the trees in the cities are introduced. One of the most numerous is the Rain Tree with its broad umbrella shaped canopy. Two other tree species found in the city is the Rusty Shieldbearer and the Flamboyant. Most of these trees flower in the month of May. A tree found near rivers and water bodies, especially in the Menik and Kumbukkan Oya is the Kumbuk tree. The Royal Botanical Gardens is the largest of Sri Lanka’s botanical gardens with over 4,000 different species of plants and is regarded among the finest in Asia. One of the highlights when visiting these unique gardens would be the Orchid collection, walking through a stunning avenue of Royal Palm Trees as well as a giant Javan Fig Tree on the great lawn. Another key feature of the gardens is the large collection of medicinal plants and spices. The Hakgala Gardens off Nuwara Eliya has an excellent collection of flowering plants found in the highlands.

Nature-based tours can be conducted across Sri Lanka for tree enthusiasts which will be led by Botanists to cover the variety of different habitats from the dry lowlands, the montane cloud forests of the highlands and the lowland rainforests, where a large number of tree species can be encountered.

Sea Turtles of Sri Lanka

Mysterious and yet fascinating creatures of the deep, marine turtles are rarely seen by man and are only occasionally seen by a lucky few when snorkeling or diving and when the the females come ashore to lay eggs. There are seven species of marine turtles of which five species comprising of the Green Turtle, Olive Ridley, Hawksbill Turtle, Leatherback Turtle and Loggerhead Turtle have been recorded nesting on Sri Lankan beaches.

The carapace or top part of the shell of the turtles is streamlined and short making swimming easy. The Leatherback Turtle has a thick leathery skin instead of the bony shell. Turtles have broad, flattened flippers which differ from land based tortoises. The flippers facilitate swimming but will cause difficulty for females to move on the beaches where they come back to shore to nest.

Once the male turtles move to the ocean they would not come back to shore. The females come back to the same beaches which they hatched from to lay their eggs. Coming in the cover of darkness female labours up the beach to a spot she chooses. Then after turning and facing the sea, proceeds to dig a shallow depression in the sand with its flippers. The egg chamber is about 18 to 20 inches depending on the length of her flippers. Around 75 to 130 soft-shelled, ping-pong ball shaped eggs are laid. The number of eggs laid varies with the individuals and also with the species of turtle. They are covered with mucous when laid. Once the eggs are laid the nest chamber and the depression are covered with sand and the female labours back to the sea.

The main breeding season is from September to mid-April on the west coast of the island and from February to June on the east coast. During these periods there are no monsoon rains to dampen the eggs and also the beaches are very broad and sandy. Once the eggs are hatched the tiny hatchlings, will head towards to ocean, which is a basic instinct which directs it straight to the ocean. Only around 2% of these hatchlings will survive to adulthood as there are a host of predators waiting to prey on these helpless hatchlings, such as sea birds, fish etc. Threat to turtles from man is great with a high demand of illegal consumption of eggs and meat. Development activities along the coast especially the effect of light pollution is believed to also have a negative impact on sea turtle nesting behavior.

Rekawa beach near Tangalle on the south coast has guided nocturnal turtle watching excursions for visitors, which is managed by the Turtle Conservation Project and the Department of Wildlife Conservation with the Olive Ridley and Green Turtles being the most frequently encountered species. Green Turtles can also be seen surfing the waves close to the beach off Unawatuna and Hikkaduwa during certain times of the year.

Primate Watching

Sri Lanka is an excellent destination for watching primates, which can be seen across a variety of different habitats including the suburbs of the capital, Colombo. There are three species of diurnal primates, the Grey Langur, the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey and the Toque Macaque while the nocturnal primates include the Grey Slender Loris which is restricted to the dry-zone and the Red Loris, which is seen in the wet zone habitats. The Purple-faced Lea Monkey with four distinct races and the Toque Macaque with three distinct races are endemic and found only in Sri Lanka.

The cultural triangle is often regarded as the best area for viewing primates on the island, where the monkeys have been habituated to the presence of humans in rural areas, among the ruins and ancient stupas. Grey Langurs and Toque Macaques are commonly encountered while the canopy dwelling Purple-faced Leaf Monkey may also be seen. Polonnaruwa is regarded as the primate watching capital in Sri Lanka. Visitors can go on guided walks with a primatologist amongst the ruins in Polonnaruwa to observe the antics of the Langurs and Macaques and get to meet some of the characters within the troops who the researchers know personally. Polonnaruwa’s ‘Temple Troop of Toque Macaques’ have been featured in numerous natural history documentaries are a part of the world’s longest running study on primates which has run continuously since 1968. The monkeys here are habituated to the presence of humans enabling excellent opportunities to observe their social interactions at close-range. After dark, visitors may get to glimpse the elusive Grey Slender Loris, which is a small nocturnal primate found in scrub jungles across the dry-zone and feeds on insects. The nature trail in Jetwing Vil Uyana hotel in Sigiriya is one of the most reliable locations for viewing this elusive primate, where nocturnal loris watching tours are conducted using ‘red light’ emitting torches which do not damage their light-sensitive eyes.

The lowland rainforests of Sinharaja are home to the wet-zone races of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey and Toque Macaques, which can be seen on the tree tops. The Hakgala Botanical Gardens are renown for viewing the highland race of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey which is popularly dubbed as the Bear Monkey due to its shaggy coat. Troops of Grey Langurs and Toque Macaques can also be frequently encountered in most dry-zone national parks such as Yala, Uda Walawe and Wilpattu.

The western race of the Purple-faced Leaf Monkey, where small troops can be seen in the outer suburbs of Colombo is listed as one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world. Their habitats are shrinking at an alarming rate, and now there are very few places for these monkeys to go. Mostly moving from house to house, garden to garden these monkeys are always on the move, foraging for food. The Talangama wetlands are one of the few areas where this endangered primate can still be seen.

Whether play fighting, feeding or grooming each other there is never a dull moment when watching monkeys. Visitors however are advised against feeding monkeys especially Macaques which have become bold particularly in towns and around tourist sites.

Wild Ducks of Sri Lanka

Ducks are considered a common domestic species in most countries, and also found in many popular children's programmes. But there are a vast variety of wild ducks which are seldom recognized. There are 131 species of wild ducks and geese in the world and Sri Lanka has recorded 18 different species. Ducks are mostly aquatic birds, mostly smaller than the swans and geese, and may be found in both fresh water and brackish water. Ducks exploit a variety of food sources such as grasses, aquatic plants, fish, insects, small amphibians, worms, and small molluscs. Dabbling ducks feed on the surface of water or on land, or as deep as they can reach by up-ending without completely submerging. Along the edge of the beak there is a comb-like structure called a pecten. This strains the water squirting from the side of the beak and traps any food. The pecten is also used to preen feathers and to hold slippery food items.

The ducks are generally monogamous, although these bonds generally last only a single year. Larger species and the more sedentary species (like fast river specialists) tend to have pair-bonds that last numerous years. Most duck species breed once a year, choosing to do so in favorable conditions (spring/summer or wet seasons). Ducks also tend to make a nest before breeding, and after hatching to lead their ducklings to water. Mother ducks are very caring and protective of their young, but may abandon some of their ducklings.

Females of most dabbling ducks make the classic "quack" sound, but despite widespread misconceptions, most species of duck do not "quack". In general, ducks make a wide range of calls, ranging from whistles, cooing, yodels and grunts.

One of the most common species of duck in Sri Lanka is the Lesser Whistling Teal also know as an Indian Whistling Duck. They are one of the only two resident species found in the country. They are found throughout the country, and sometimes in large flocks numbering over 500 individuals.

The balance species of ducks are winter migrants found mainly in the Northern parts of the island, such as Mannar and Jaffna. Mannar being a favourite among birders is regarded as one of the best places in the island to view these varying species of wild ducks. Among the most unusual is the Nothern Shovelor. This beautiful species have a strange "spatula" like bill. They use their highly specialized bill (from which their name is derived) to forage for aquatic invertebrates – a carnivorous diet. Their wide-flat bill is equipped with well-developed lamellae – small, comb-like structures on the edge of the bill that act like sieves, allowing the birds to skim crustaceans and plankton from the water's surface. This adaptation, more specialized in shovelers, gives them an advantage over other puddle ducks, with which they do not have to compete for food resources during most of the year. Thus, mud-bottomed marshes rich in invertebrate life are their habitat of choices. The male bird is distinctively different from the female in coloration with a dark green head and white breast and chestnut flanks. The female is a drab mottled brown.

Another beautiful and colorful species is the Common Teal. With a myriad of colors which almost looks like its painted on the duck. This species though the name suggest common is seen in lesser numbers.

One of the most iconic, and distinctive species to migrate to Sri Lanka is the infamous Comb Duck or Knob Billed Duck. This species is a vagrant who is not a regular migrant but seen occasionally in the country around Yala and Bundala national parks. This large duck can be easily identified by the large fleshy mound on the bill of the male bird.

Mannar and Jaffna are also excellent for viewing a variety of other waterfowl seldom seen in the southern parts of the country, which include large flocks of Greater Flamingo and rare species which include Crab Plovers, Eurasian Oystercatchers, Pied Avocet, Indian Courser, Western Reef Egret, Eurasian Curlew and the Whimbrel. The best season for birding in the northern peninsula is between the months of November through to February when the water levels are high after the monsoonal rains and the birds seek refuge from the colder climes in the northern hemisphere.

Crocodiles of Sri Lanka

One of the most primeval and intriguing animal species found in Sri Lanka is the crocodile. These predators date back millions of years to the age of the dinosaurs. There are two primary species found on the island. The smaller and more placid of the two is the Mugger or Marsh Crocodile (Crocodylus Palustris). They are an average sized crocodilian with sizes ranging from 8-13 feet. One of the key features to identify this crocodile is the wide snout and grey coloration. They are found mainly in the dry zone regions of the island in water bodies from inland natural and manmade lakes as well as rivers and tributaries. Feeding mainly on fish, this species as all crocodilians will prey on larger mammals such as Spotted Deer if the opportunity presents itself. Generally this species is less aggressive than most other species of crocodiles, but is yet a formidable ambush predator which waits for prey to come close. This species is also more gregarious than other species and are often seen basking together in large numbers, especially in the dry seasons when water is limited. Females lay eggs in holes dug in the sand, and during the height of the dry season, these reptiles burrow themselves deep underground in tunnels on the banks of the lakes and rivers where they reside.

An interesting fact about this species is the documentation of them having sticks and branches which are balanced on their heads which it seems is a means of luring birds to find nesting material. This will be one of the only records of reptiles using tools. The best places to see mugger crocodiles in Yala National Park, where one can observe over 20-30 individuals at times during the dry season where most of these animals group together in the last remaining waterholes and manmade lakes such as Koma Wewa, Dharshana Wewa, Heen Wewa and Diganwala. If one waits long enough in a water hole it would be possible to witness these predators preying on an unsuspecting Spotted Deer or Grey Langur coming to the waters edge to quench its thirst. Further this species is known to travel long distances on land, and sightings of them feeding on leopard kills and carcasses far away from land are quite common in Yala. National Parks such as Wilpattu and Bundala are also good locations to see this species of crocodile.

The Saltwater or Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus Porosis) is the largest species of reptile on earth. This species has a fearsome reputation as being the most aggressive species of crocodilian. Ranging from 12-20 feet this gigantic reptile is the undisputed king of the river. But as its name suggest they are sometimes seen in the ocean as well, as they travel from river to river using the ocean to move between them. Their bodies are adapted to withstand the high levels of salt, and are even known to swim long distances over 100 km between islands in Australia and Papua New Guinea.

This species can easily be identified by the black and yellow coloration as well as its large size. They are mainly found in brackish waters, lagoons, estuaries and mangroves in the West, South and Eastern coasts. On rare occasions they are found inland but more often than not this species is found closer to the coast. It is capable of prevailing over almost any animal that enters its territory, including other apex predators such as sharks, varieties of freshwater and marine fish including pelagic species, invertebrates, such as crustaceans, various reptiles, birds and mammals, including humans With the highest number of deaths of humans due to this species it is often considered a serious threat to people. This species can even be found near Colombo with small populations found in the suburbs such as Ja Ela, Wattala, Attidiya and Ratmalana. The Muthurajawela Wetlands in the outskirts of Colombo is one of the places close to the city where these species can occasionally be seen, where boat-rides are organized to experience the wildlife in these waters. The Madu Ganga and Bentota River in the south-west coast are also rivers where this species can be seen during boat safaris. The highest numbers of Saltwater Crocodiles can be seen in the Nilawala River in Matara. A boat safari on these waters give a visitor a unique experience to witness one of the most dominant predators on the planet from the relative safety of the boat. Hatchlings can sometimes be seen in the water close to mangroves where they seek refuge from birds, fish and larger crocodiles. But the excitement of coming across a giant 16 foot dominant male crocodile at eye level, swimming along the rover with its back and tail postured up to showcase its dominance, can be considered one of the most thrilling and awe inspiring wildlife experiences Sri Lanka has to offer.

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