Where and how to see elephants in Sri Lanka?

Éléphant

Are you visiting Sri Lanka and would like to see elephants in their natural habitat? Here are some tips on how to observe the Sri Lankan elephant

The Asian elephant is a different species from the African elephant. It has small ears and is considerably smaller in size. The Sri Lankan elephant is a subspecies of the Asian elephant and is the largest of this species.

Sri Lanka and elephants share a long history. Long used for tasks requiring strength, such as transporting wood in the forest, they are now increasingly being replaced by machines. However, they continue to take part in the major events of Sri Lankan life, such as weddings and, above all, religious ceremonies. They are considered semi-sacred animals, with the honor of carrying objects of worship.

It should be borne in mind, however, that this domestic use is detrimental to the animal’s well-being, and travelers visiting Sri Lanka are advised to refrain from taking elephant rides. We explain how and where to see elephants in Sri Lanka in their natural habitat.

Gal Oya National Park

Parc National Gal Oya

Photo Credit: Shutterstock / ThePhotographerSL

Not far from the east coast, Gal Oya National Park was created in 1954. This followed the construction of the Inginiyagala dam, which created the Senanayake Samudraya reservoir. It is home to an abundance of wildlife, including over 30 species of mammal and 150 species of bird. But its main feature is that it is an exceptional territory for elephants, who enjoy swimming between the various islets.

To see the elephants, you can choose between a jeep safari or, even better, a boat safari.

Gal Oya Park opening times and prices

  • The park is best visited between May and September.
  • Open daily from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
  • Admission is $10 for adults, $5 for children aged 6 to 12 and free for toddlers. This includes the boat tour.
  • If you use a guide and a jeep, the cost is approximately $25 per adult, including admission.
  • Length of visit: between three and four hours.

How to get to Gal Oya Park

  • If you’re travelling along the east coast, between Batticaloa and Arugam Bay, exit the A4 at Kalmunai and head towards Ampara. The park’s eastern entrance is at Inginiyagala, 17 km away. This is where you’ll find guides with 4X4s.
  • From the south or west, you can reach Nilgala, the Park’s western gateway. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Kandy or Ella.
  • By public transport, reach Ampara and take a mini-bus to Inginiyagala.

Minneriya National Park

Parc National Minneriya

Photo credit: Shutterstock / Miles Astray

On your way from the Cultural Triangle to the east coast, there are several parks where you can observe Sri Lanka’s elephants. They are often interconnected, and the elephants move from one to the other according to the season.

Minneriya is the largest and best-known. It surrounds the Mineriya Weva reservoir. During the dry season, elephants come here to drink.

Minneriya Park opening times and prices

  • The park is best visited in the late afternoon, between June and September, during the dry season.
  • Open daily from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
  • Admission costs around $15 for adults, half price for children aged 6 to 12 and free for the little ones. You must add the cost of a guide and a place in a 4X4.
  • Length of visit: between three and four hours.

How do I get to Minneriya Park?

The park can be reached from Habarana, Sigiriya or Polonnaruwa in thirty to forty-five minutes by car. By bus, allow an hour from Habarana or Polonnaruwa.

Kaudulla National Park

Parc National Kaudulla

Photo credit: Shutterstock / Thomas Wyness

Smaller than Minneriya, it has the advantage of being less expensive and less crowded. You’ll see mostly elephants, but you may also see bears and leopards. Visits can be made early in the morning or mid-afternoon.

Kaudulla Park opening times and prices

  • Although it can be visited all year round, the best time is between July and December. The water in the lake recedes, revealing vast grasslands much appreciated by the elephants.
  • Open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
  • Admission costs around $10. It’s fairly easy to find a driver and a jeep. Depending on the number of people in your group, this will run you around $25 per person.
  • You can also choose to take a guided tour from Dambulla or Sirigiya, from your hotel. The cost is around $45 per person.
  • Tour duration: around two hours for the tour itself, and four to five hours for a departure from Sirigiya.

How do I get to Kaudulla Park?

Allow around an hour’s drive from Polonnaruwa and three-quarters of an hour from Habarana.

Uda Walawe National Park

Parc National Uda Walawe

Photo credit: Shutterstock / Efimova Anna

The park lies between Tangalle, on the south coast, and Haputale, in the mountains. The landscape resembles an African savannah, as much of the forest was burnt to make way for crops before it was classified. Visitors are guaranteed to see elephants at any time of day, as the view goes on and on. You can even see lone males, known as tuskers, which are very difficult to find in other parks.

Uda Walawe Park opening times and prices

  • The two dry seasons are the best for visiting: February/March and May to September.
  • Open daily from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.v
  • Admission is $15, $7.50 for children aged 6 to 12 and free for toddlers. Numerous chauffeured jeeps wait at the park entrance and take you on safari for $20.
  • Length of visit: three hours.

How do I get to Uda Walawe Park?

  • From Tangalle: about an hour and a half’s drive. By bus to Embilipitiya, then on to Tanamalwila, with a stop at the Park.
  • From Haputale: about three hours’ drive.

Wilpattu National Park

Parc National Wilpattu

Photo credit: Shutterstock / Anton_Ivanov

The largest of Sri Lanka’s national parks, Wilpattu is located north of Colombo and west of Anudradhapura. Badly damaged during the civil war, it was reopened in 2010. The vegetation is very dense and it’s difficult to see the panthers that live here, but ornithologists are in for a treat, as there are so many birds. Some 200 elephants have appropriated a territory some thirty kilometers from the western entrance.

Wilpattu Park opening times and prices

  • The park can be visited all year round, but February and October are the most favorable months, although the latter can be particularly rainy.
  • Open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with last admission at 4:30 p.m.
  • Admission is $16 for adults, $8 for children aged 6 to 12 and free for toddlers.
  • Length of visit: three to four hours.

How do I get to Wilpattu Park?

There are two main entrances. You’ll find drivers with jeeps at both.

  • Near Eluwankulama, at the end of Route 3, if you’re coming from Columbo. Allow 3 hrs 30 mins drive
  • Hunuwilagama, to the east of the park. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Anuradhapura. Alternatively, you can take the bus to Thimbiriwewa.

Yala National Park

Parc National Yala

Photo credit: Shutterstock / HeadSpinPhoto

It’s the second largest and also one of the busiest. There’s a good reason for this: it’s one of the richest in animals of all kinds, including the Ceylon panther. It is located in the very south of the island, next to the ocean. If you want to get away from the crowds and discover wilder areas, it’s best to opt for a one-day safari.

Yala Park opening times and prices

  • The best time to visit and meet the elephants is from May to August. The park is closed in September and October.
  • Admission is $16 for adults, $8 for children aged 6 to 12 and free for toddlers.
  • Length of visit: three to four hours, unless you take the full-day option.

How to get to Yala Park

  • The main entrance is at Palatupana, not far from Tissamaharama, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Tangalle. The Park suggests using the secondary entrances at Kataragama or Galge, north of Tissamaharama.
  • You can reach Kataragama or Tissamaharama by bus from Tangalle in around three and a half hours. There is no public transport to Palatupana.