An Epic Elephant Safari in Udawalawe National Park in Sri Lanka: What You Need to Know
If beautiful beaches, delicious food, rich culture and stunning landscape aren’t enough to convince you to hop on a plane to Sri Lanka, then take a look at the amazing wildlife that this little island in the Indian ocean offers. Despite its size, Sri Lanka possesses an extremely high degree of biodiversity and is considered one of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world. If you are an elephant lover then you absolutely must go on a wildlife safari in Udawalawe National Park where hundreds of elephants roam free – read on for everything you need to know to help plan your trip to Udawalawe National Park!
If you are visiting Sri Lanka (and especially the Southern Province), then chances are that you are weighing up between a safari in Yala National Park or Udawalawe National Park. Both are fantastic and within a few hours’ drive of each other, but Udawalawe is popular among those who want guaranteed elephant sightings; Udawalawe is also about a third of the size of Yala and typically less crowded. Most importantly, Yala National Park closes for 6-8 weeks each year, typically from the beginning of September onwards – this means that all safaris in the Southern Province of Sri Lanka are rerouted to Udawalawe National Park. Here’s what you need to know before your elephant safari in Udawalawe National Park!
Why should I visit Udawalawe National Park?
Udawalawe National Park is located in the south of Sri Lanka and is a popular destination for those hoping to spot wild elephants. It is quite possibly the best place in Sri Lanka to see elephants throughout the year as there are a few hundred elephants within the park, and you can sometimes witness a herd of females moving or bathing together in the wild.
According to the World Animal Protection Organization’s Research Report on the conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia, Sri Lanka has the highest density of wild Asian elephants worldwide: an estimated five to six thousand in the wild and 120 to 200 in captivity. I would argue that Sri Lanka is one of the top destinations in Asia if you want to see an elephant in the wild, as Sri Lanka has done a wonderful job of protecting its wildlife while also making it accessible to visitors. There is no better place to observe an animal than in its natural habitat, and I would highly recommend visiting the national parks in Yala, Udawalawe or Minneriya over visiting one of the elephant “orphanages” in Sri Lanka (with the exception of the Elephant Transit Home which returns elephants to the wild).
From the WAP’s Research Report on the conditions for elephants used in tourism in Asia: “A true elephant-friendly venue is purely observational for visitors, where the safety of visitors and wellbeing of elephants is not affected by the need to constantly control the animals. The elephants would be managed in humane ways through the mahout who allows a maximum of freedom or through advanced ‘protected contact’ techniques.”
When should I visit Udawalawe National Park?
Udawalawe is in a hot, semi-arid environment and the annual average temperature is about 32 degrees Celcius. The chance of witnessing a herd of Sri Lankan elephants is extremely high near rivers and the reservoir of Udawalawe, and this chance increases during the dry season when the elephants gather near bodies of water. The dry season of the region is between May and September.
Although you might see elephants on a morning safari, you’re better off going on a 3-hour afternoon safari from 3 to approximately 6 pm as many elephants will venture out to the river for a bath and sip of water.
As I mentioned above, Yala National Park is closed to the public from early September to mid to late October each year, so if you are visiting southern Sri Lanka during this time you should head to Udawalawe National Park instead.
How do I get to Udawalawe National Park?
The best way to get to Udawalawe is by car. If you are traveling from Colombo to Udawalawe be prepared for a 4-5 hour car ride. I booked my safari the night before through my hotel, and the rate for a 3 hour safari was 4500 Sri Lankan Rupees (approximately 30 USD). In addition to the jeep charges you will have to pay an entrance fee to the park itself; as of August 2017 the rate was 4400 LKR / 1 person, 7000 LKR / 2 people, 9580 LKR / 3 people. The per-person fees continue to go down as the size of your group goes up. Tips are discretionary. I tipped my driver/spotter $10 USD as I had an amazing time and he was incredibly knowledgeable about the animals and the park.
There are plenty of Udawalawe National Park accommodation options: I booked myself into Eliyanth Udawalawe, a small hotel that offered incredible value for money. The rooms were spacious and clean with a private balcony overlooking the river, the safari jeep driver/spotter was professional and could spot an eagle a mile away, and the manager went out of his way to help me arrange all of my transportation to and from the hotel. From my hotel it was a 30 minute car ride from door to door, and within 5 minutes of being inside the park we spotted a herd of 4 elephants! The one thing to note is that they only accept cash, but there are nearby ATMs that you can use. Click here to book your stay at Eliyanth Udawalawe!
What hotel should I stay at if I’m only visiting Udawalawe National Park for a day trip?
If you aren’t staying overnight in Udawalawe and only have time for a day trip to the national park, your best bet is to stay in the Southern Province – but get ready for a long day ahead of you as the drive to and from the park can be 2-3 hours long. However, the southern coast has beautiful stretches of beach and you have tons of options for places to stay!
Shangri-La’s Hambantota Resort & Spa and Anantara Tangalle are excellent five star properties with amazing restaurants and service in this area. If you’re looking for something more low key, check out Talalla Retreat, the perfect place for surf and yoga. All of these hotels are within 2-3 hours’ drive away from Udawalawe National Park.
What can I expect from a wildlife safari in Udawalawe National Park?
Once you get to the park, you’ll be driven to the ticket office where you need to pay the park entrance fee. If you don’t have any Sri Lankan Rupees on you the office also takes Visa or Mastercard payments. Occasionally you will have a driver and a separate spotter, who is tasked with keeping an eye out for birds, elephants, crocodiles and monkeys. In my case, my driver was the spotter and had 20/20 vision – it was incredible! He would point out faraway animals to me and sometimes it still took me a while to see what he saw, even through my 300 mm zoom lens.
The drive through the park can be bumpy and rough and it’s not uncommon for jeeps to be vying for the best spots when an animal is spotted. You are not allowed to drive up close to the animals or harass them, but I’m sorry to say that some drivers blatantly chased elephants through the park so their guests could get a better photo – don’t be that tourist!
During my time in Udawalawe National Park I saw a small herd of elephants as well as approximately a dozen single elephants (male). One of the most memorable moments of the safari was when we ventured away from the other jeeps and stumbled upon one lone male elephant. We watched him, silently, for approximately 20 minutes as he walked back and forth gathering leaves – he even reached up high for leaves from a tree!
In addition to the dozens of elephants we also spotted kingfishers, tons of crocodiles, eagles, buffalo, peacocks and 1 monkey.
What should I bring on the safari?
Udawalawe National Park is an amazing destination for wildlife photography. Bring a camera and zoom lens (75 mm-300 mm or even more zoomed in if you have one), you’re unlikely to get any good shots using your smartphone.
Cash for the park entrance fee – bring Sri Lankan Rupees as they don’t accept US Dollars. They also accept Visa or Mastercard.
Bottled water (or even better, a reusable water bottle) as it does get very dry and hot in the area. Remember to take all your trash with you!
You shouldn’t need sunscreen as most jeeps are covered at all times – there is one spot where you’re allowed to step outside of the vehicle but that area is also shaded.
A hair tie or cap as the drive can get extremely dusty, I felt like I could crack my hair in half by the end of the safari.
Which national park is better? Udawalawe or Yala?
As both national parks are in the Southern Province, many people find themselves debating whether to visit Udawalawe or Yala National Park. I’ve been to both, and I can wholeheartedly say that they are different enough to warrant a visit to both.
If you only have time for 1, then you’ll have to decide what animals you’re hoping to see. If you’re desperate for a chance of spotting a leopard, then Yala National Park is your best bet as it boasts one of the highest leopard densities in the world. Like all safaris though, a sighting is not guaranteed – I’ve been on two safaris in Yala and have yet to see a leopard. You are also likely to see a few elephants, though not as many as if you were to visit Udawalawe National Park as it is three times the size and animals are more spread out.
Udawalawe does have leopards (an estimated 1 dozen or so) but the chances of spotting one are extremely rare. If you’re an elephant lover and want a guaranteed sighting of a wild elephant, then I would say head to Udawalawe National Park; in general, the number of people and jeeps in Udawalawe tends to be lower so the park is much less crowded.
The pricing at both parks is comparable.
Planning a trip to Yala National Park instead? Click here for my guide to going on a safari in Yala!
Have you been to Yala National Park or Sri Lanka? What did you think? Share your experience with me in the comments section below!
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