The Sri Lankan “Big Five” are the elephant, sloth bear, leopard, blue whale, and sperm whale. Three of the five can be found on safari in Udawalawe and Yala National Parks.
Outside of the big five we were also surprised by the diversity of bird and other wildlife in Sri Lanka. We were also torn regarding which of the two National Parks to visit. In the end we were able to visit both and here is our summary for how to choose.
Seeing Both Parks
Our driver strongly urged us to go to Yala instead of Udawalawe, but our research led us to choose Udawalawe for the reasons we will cover below. We originally had not planned to visit Yala. We were able to see both parks thanks to a project we worked on with Master Campers. Master Campers is currently located right by Udawalawe Park and we stayed with them for two nights. Here is the video we produced for them of the Master Camper experience:
The Master Camping experience in short is luxury camping with five star service. Every meal was multi-course and locally sourced.
The staff is hired locally and were our favorite part of the stay due to their friendliness and how they took care of every detail. Roy who is the guide for Master Campers is an expert Animal Tracker, but more importantly truly passionate about animals.
Even though he’s had years of experience as a safari guide, he had unequal enthusiasm in game drives when spotting each new sight. The team currently focuses on Udawalawe safaris, but are working to open up a Yala camp.
Since we visited during off season they also offer on a limited basis packages that include both Udawalawe and Yala rides. It’s only an hour and a half drive from the Udawalawe camp to the North Gate of Yala. The team woke us early with freshly brewed coffee, we were able to sleep during the car ride to the park, and they packed an impressive breakfast which we ate while waiting for the leopard to appear.
Thanks to them we were able to experience both Parks which informed this assessment of the two parks.
To cut to the chase we choose Udawalawe for the entire experience due it’s beautiful scenery and feeling of seclusion from other tourists. If your goal is to see the Sri Lankan Big 5, Yala is your Park.
Udwawalawe For Elephants, Birdlife and Solitude
Solitude at Udawalawe
The landscape of Udawalawe is incredible: tall majestic trees with vultures and peacocks perched atop, lakes where you could glimpse crocodiles slithering around lounging water buffaloes, and the brightest blue skies. With the exception of the lineup of vehicles at the gate during opening time, we felt that we had the reserve to ourself for the majority of the drive. Sunset in particular is magical in Udawalawe, here the landscape views compete with the animals sightings.
We will admit that we are not huge bird watchers, we were still impressed with the variety of Birdlife we saw at Udawalawe.
There is a large population of peacocks on the reserve and on one of our drives we were able to watch a male peacock perform his mating dance to two not very interested female peacocks.
While the sloth bear and leopard are in Udawalawe, they are much harder to spot here compared to Yala. Choose Udawalawe if you want to see elephants in their most natural habitat. Udawalawe has the highest density of elephants in Asia. Each game drive you will see 50-60 elephants: males roaming on their own, females and children elephants playing in packs. They come close to the car and can often be observed in close proximity interacting with each other. During one of our game drives we saw two elephants giving each a back rub!
The elephant transit home is also very close to Udawalawe. While there are several elephant “orphanages” in Sri Lanka, we were most impressed with the mission and practices of the ETH. Their mission is to feed orphaned baby elephants and help them transition to adult life. Daily feedings occur twice a day. Tourists can observe the two daily feedings from a platform. Unlike other elephant “orphanages” there is no direct interaction with tourists and elephants. We had read that due to demand from tourists for these types of interactions, some of these orphanages function more like zoos and are far removed from the conservancy. Also unlike the other orphanages there are also no elephants born into captivity. The entrance fees and donations go towards feeding the baby elephants until they are able to find enough food for themselves.
Yala for the Leopard
While they can’t guarantee it, your chance of seeing the leopard are pretty high at Yala. Depending on the season, you also have a good chance of spotting the sloth bear. However any spotting becomes a giant cluster of jeeps. All the guides and trackers want their clients to spot the elusive animal so they keep each other informed of sightings.
During our game drives at Udawalawe we drove leisurely through the reserve stopping along the way as we spotted elephants, water buffaloes or crocodiles.
During the Yala game drive, there’s essentially two speeds: breakneck or zero. We were either racing across the park because someone spotted leopard cubs and our driver wanted us to see them before they went back into hiding. Alternatively we’d arrive shortly after the leopard moved out of sight and would sit waiting for him to reappear. In total we had five sightings: a male leopard perched in the distance on top of a rock, two cubs running into the woods and two walking along the rock in close proximity. None came up to the car though we were told that often happens. There was a kill reported but it was too far away for us to reach.
At each of these sightings hordes of jeeps would descend.
Overall at Yala, we felt intrusive and like vultures descending to see the leopards. We much preferred the quiet of Udawalawe.