Wilpattu National Park lies on the northwest coast of Sri Lanka, 30km due west of the ancient city of Anuradhapura, and spanning the border between the North West and North Central Provinces. It's among the oldest and most important protected areas in the country.
Wilpattu is also the largest national park in Sri Lanka, with an area of approximately 131,500 hectares. Declared as a sanctuary in 1905, the government upgraded it 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.
Situated firmly in Sri Lanka's 'dry zone' area, Willpattu National Park is made up of dry lowland forest and numerous ‘villus’ – flat basin-like fault depressions on the earth’s crust that collect rainwater – and it is an excellent location for wildlife spotting in both the dry and monsoonal seasons. The scenery is beautiful too. 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. Despite the thicker vegetation, wildlife sightings are still possible in these areas, 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, the docile dugong is known to occur.
The park is a major site of interest for birders, with the villus supporting various resident and migratory waterfowl, including large breeding populations of the painted stork and open billed stork, among others. The many villus is 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 more limited than the country’s second-largest and more popular park, Yala. However, its isolation and lack of general touristic infrastructure are what makes it so special. You are unlikely to see too 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, there are 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 very close 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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