Lying on the northwest coast, 30km due west of Sri Lanka’s ancient city of Anuradhapura, and spanning the border between the North West and North Central Provinces, Wilpattu is among the oldest and most important protected areas in the country.
It is also the largest national park in Sri Lanka, with an area of approximately 131,500 hectares. Declared as a sanctuary in 1905, it was upgraded to national park status on 25 February 1938. The park was closed for some parts of the recently ended civil unrest experienced in the region, but it has now re-opened and is safe for visits.
The park is made up of dry lowland forest and numerous ‘villus’ – flat basin-like fault depressions on the earth’s crust which collect rainwater – and it is an excellent location for wildlife spotting and scenery alike, in both the dry and monsoonal seasons. The western section of the park is deeply forested with bright copper loamy soils and the sounds of cicadas fill the air as you drive through. In these areas - despite the thicker vegetation - wildlife sightings are still possible, with land monitors and birds galore.
Aside from Wilpattu’s rugged beauty, there is thought to be a 50% chance of leopard sightings here, and in addition to elephants, sloth bears, water buffalos, and spotted deer. Along Wilpattu’s coastline with both Dutch and Portuguese Bays, the docile dugong is known to occur.
The park is a major site of interest for birders, with the villus supporting a variety of resident and migratory waterfowl including large breeding populations of the painted stork and open billed stork among others. The villus are not the only bird-supporting habitat within the park either, and you might spot the greater racquet-tailed drongo, Asian paradise flycatcher, crimson-breasted barbet, Malabar pied hornbill and fish owl plus many many more. Of course be ready to see one or twelve of Sri Lanka’s national bird: the Sri Lankan jungle fowl.
The park takes some getting to, and the accommodation options in the region are somewhat more limited than the country’s second largest park, Yala, however, its isolation and lack of general touristic infrastructure is what makes it so special. You are unlikely to see many other jeeps while you are out on safari, and almost every sighting will be just for you – much better than squashing in with 20 other vehicles crowding around one poor leopard! You will need to head into the park for around 10km through thick dry lowland forest before you hit the more open areas and villus, however wildlife sightings along this road are still possible so it pays to keep your eyes peeled at all times!
To make the most of your time in Wilpattu, head to Leopard Trails for luxury camping just outside the park’s border or, if you are more tied to your home comforts, Kulu offers great service and comfort in a simple lodge, just 20 minutes from the park gates. Another great, intimate option is the Ibis with just four rooms, set amongst 2.5 acres of greenery and in very close proximity to the park.
The best time to visit Wilpattu is from May to early September during which time the extensive drought draws wildlife out to the open areas surrounding the villus.
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