Sri Lanka 2015

Sri Lanka is a lush and beautiful country, and one of the best places to see many of South Asia’s most elusive mammals and birds, as well as being home to a number of endemic species.  Despite its relatively small size, Sri Lanka has the highest biodiversity density in Asia, with 22% of its mammal species being endemic.  In addition to its wildlife, Sri Lanka has a long human history: its geographic location and deep harbours making it of great strategic  importance over the millennia, which has resulted in a host of wonderful temples and fortresses.

Our tour takes us across the island, visiting national parks and wildlife areas which cover the full variety of habitats in Sri Lanka, from tropical lowland forest to highland grasslands and cloud forest.  We also visit the most important cultural sites, and ancient capitals of the country.  The post-tour extension takes us to Trincomalee to look for blue whales, which make their migration along the coast at this time of year.  Blue whales can also be seen in the south of Sri Lanka, but the whale watching off Trincomalee is much less developed, with far fewer boats, and so the experience is much more enjoyable.  The combination of fabulous wildlife and fascinating cultural sites make Sri Lanka a wonderful country to visit.

This tour has been timed to fit with a whale-watching and snorkelling cruise running in the  Maldives before this tour, and so the two tours can be taken together or separately.

Main tour:

Day 01;                                  March 1st  

We arrive into Colombo Airport and transfer to our hotel.  The gardens of the hotel are home to a variety of bird species, and sometimes the elusive short-tailed (brown) mongoose, and so we will get our species list off to a good start this afternoon.

Day 02;                                  March 2nd

Today we drive out of town, to a patch of forest in search of some of Sri Lanka’s endemic mammals, including the elusive red slender loris, and the wet-zone sub-species of golden palm civet, as well as Sri Lankan giant squirrel.  Birds here include Alexandrine and rose-ringed parakeets, green imperial pigeon, and purple-rumped sunbird, amongst many others.

We also have a chance of seeing brown fish owl and brown wood owl during our evening spotlighting.  Many of Sri Lanka’s most interesting species are nocturnal, and so this will be  the first of many spotlighting excursions that we will undertake – both on foot and by vehicle.

Days 03 – 06;                        March 3rd to 6th

After breakfast we drive to the ancient city of Polunnaruwa, capital of Sri Lanka from 1070 to 1200, to explore the ruins of the fabulous garden-city created by King Parakramabahu.  His reign is considered a Golden Age of Sri Lanka, when trade and agriculture flourished, and the kingdom was completely self-sufficient.  Polunnaruwa is a World Heritage Site, famed for its sophisticated irrigation systems, including the vast “Sea of Parakrama” that is still used to irrigate rice paddies today.

Our destination is a charming lodge in Sigiriya, our home for the next four nights.  Sigiriya is one of the best areas in Sri Lanka to find a host of dry zone species.  During our time here we explore the area on foot and by vehicle, by day and by night, in search of some of the main targets of our tour: fishing, rusty-spotted and jungle cats.  These cats are all nocturnal, and hard to find, but we have an excellent chance of seeing them in this area.  Other mammals we hope to see include tufted grey langur, purple-faced leaf monkey (dry zone race), grey slender loris, white-striped chevrotain, and brown palm civet.  This is an excellent area for bird-watching too, with its variety of habitats, and we will look for blue-faced malkoha, drongo-cuckoo, Oriental dwarf kingfisher, Ceylon grey hornbill, black-rumped and crimson-backed flameback woodpeckers, Indian pitta, orange-headed thrush, and many more birds.  Reptiles, butterflies and dragonflies are also  plentiful around Sigiriya, and there are a myriad of species to look at and photograph.

Sigiriya is home to a 5th century rock fortress, known as the “Fortress in the Sky”, which is  surrounded by an extensive network of ramparts, moats, gardens, reservoirs and other buildings.  The area is dominated by a massive rock formation, some 650 feet high, on top of which King Kasyapa built his palace around 480AD.  On a small plateau half way up he built a gateway in the form of an enormous lion, after which the place is named Sihagiri or Lion Rock.  It is one of the best preserved examples of ancient urban planning in the world.  The palace was abandoned after the king’s death and was used as a Buddhist monastery until the 14th century.  It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

During our time here we also visit Minneriya National Park, famed for its vast 3rd century water tank which attracts elephants and other mammals to drink in this dry zone area.  The Park is also home to the endemic primates, purple-faced langur and toque macaque, as well as the Sri Lankan sub-species of sambar and chital deer, leopard and sloth bear.  The reservoir and surrounding forest protects lesser adjutant and painted storks, spot-billed pelican, and a host of endemic birds, including Sri Lankan junglefowl, hanging parrot and grey hornbill, as well as brown-capped babbler, black-crested bulbul and crimson-fronted barbet.

Day 07;                                  March 7th

This morning we drive to the World Heritage Site of Kandy, second largest city after Colombo and the last capital of the ancient kings of Sri Lanka.  Kandy is located in the mountainous and forested interior of the island, at an elevation of 1,500 feet above sea level.  It is both an administrative and religious centre, being home to the famed Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, one of the most sacred places of worship in the Buddhist world.  The Temple of the Tooth was built in 1595 by King Vimaladhuarmasuriya I, to house the tooth relic of Lord Buddha.  While in Kandy we also visit the beautiful Peradeniya Botanic Gardens, formally established in 1843.  The Gardens are home to more than 4,000 species of plants, as well as toque macaques, giant squirrels and a host of birds.

Day 08;                                  March 8th

After breakfast we visit Udawttelkele Sanctuary in Kandy.  This forest has been protected since 1856, but has been an historic forest reserve for much longer, protecting the water catchment for Kandy along with a myriad of bird, mammal and reptile species, including the endemic Layard’s parakeet, yellow-fronted barbet and Sri Lankan myna, as well as toque macaque, white-spotted chevrotain, Indian flying squirrel and golden palm civet.

From here we drive to Nuwara Eliya, a well-known hill station during the British Raj, nicknamed “Little England”.  The drive takes us through lush tea plantations dotting the mountainsides, to a town much of whose architecture goes back to the colonial era.  The gardens of Victoria Park in the town were also set out in colonial times, and now attract migrant birds from the Himalayan foothills.  This is probably the best place in the world to see Kashmir flycatcher and pied ground thrush, and it is also good site for Sri Lanka’s highland endemics such as yellow-eared bulbul and Ceylon white-eye.  The Park is also home to the gorgeously woolly highland race of purple-faced leaf monkey, dusky-striped jungle squirrel, and golden palm civet.

Day 09;                                  March 9th

Today we visit the World Heritage Site of Horton Plains National Park, an area of montane  grassland and cloud forest in the central highlands.  The plateau is at an altitude of 7,000 feet, and protects many endemic species.  Horton Plains were discovered during the colonial period by a hunting party and named after the then governor of the island.  Horton Plains is home to the endemic but elusive Ceylon whistling-thrush, as well as Ceylon wood pigeon, Ceylon bush warbler and dusky blue flycatcher amongst other highland birds.  Smooth-coated otters sometimes frequent the pools and streams found here, and getting here early gives us the chance of seeing this elusive mammal.

Mornings also bring out large herds of sambar deer.  In addition, the highland races of purple-faced leaf monkey, toque macaque and giant squirrel can be found here, together with the endemic striped-necked mongoose.  Horton Plains is also a paradise for herpetologists, with around 15 amphibians inhabiting the Park, and no fewer than six endemic reptiles.  We return to Nuwara Eliya this afternoon, and spend the evening spotlighting for the highland race of golden palm civet, and the very rare Ceylon mountain slender loris.

Days 10 – 12;                        March 10th to 12th

This morning we leave the highlands and journey to the south-east of Sri Lanka to the area of Yala National Park, where we stay for the next three nights.  Yala has been protected since 1900, and (along with Wilpattu) was one of the first two National Parks created in Sri Lanka in 1938.  Yala is the best place to see the Sri Lankan subspecies of leopard, together with elephant, wild boar, tufted grey langur, golden jackal, Asian water buffalo, Indian hare, and ruddy, striped-necked and Indian grey mongooses.  We visit the Park several times during our stay, and also spotlight outside the Park looking for Indian scops owl, Indian and Jerdon’s nightjar, leopard, and rusty-spotted, fishing and jungle cats.

During our time here we also visit the RAMSAR site of Bundala National Park in search of spot-billed pelican, black-necked and lesser adjutant storks, Ceylon junglefowl, white-naped and yellow-crowned woodpeckers, tawny-bellied babbler, blue-faced malkoha, Jerdon’s bushlark, Ceylon woodshrike, Marshall’s Iora, and Brahminy and rosy starlings.  Toque macaque and tufted grey langur are also found here, together with golden jackal, wild boar, chital and sambar deer, as well as mugger and saltwater crocodiles, Bengal monitor lizard, and a variety of snakes.

Day 13;                                  March 13th

Today we drive to Udawalawa National Park, a haven for Asian elephant which are attracted to the waters of the reservoir.  The Park is also home to ruddy mongoose, golden jackal, Indian flying fox, and chital and sambar deer; as well as barred buttonquail, yellow-fronted pied woodpecker, sirkeer malkoha, orange-breasted pigeon, Malabar pied hornbill, yellow-eyed babbler and black-headed munia.  The Park is also home to a variety of raptors, including changeable hawk-eagle, crested serpent-eagle, black-shouldered kite, shikra, white-bellied sea-eagle and grey-headed fish-eagle, while Montagu’s and pallid harriers, booted eagle, and shaheen falcon are sometimes seen.

En route we look for Marshall’s iora, a near-endemic whose occurrence in Sri Lanka was only discovered recently.  The evening will be spent at a wetland where bitterns, watercock and other waterbirds are seen on a regular  basis, after which we visit a site known to have white-naped woodpecker.

Days 14 – 16;                        March 14th to 16th

After breakfast we travel to the World Heritage Site of Sinharaja Forest Reserve, an area of tropical lowland rainforest.  The Reserve is home to all 20 of the endemic rainforest bird species, including chestnut-backed owlet, red-faced malkoha, green-billed coucal, white-faced starling, ashy-headed laughing-thrush, Sri Lanka scaly thrush and Sri Lanka blue magpie.  A highlight of birding here is the mixed species feeding flocks of birds, when up to twenty species can be seen, usually led by the noisy greater racket-tailed drongo.  The diversity of butterflies in Sinharaja is also very high.  Some of the species we hope to see are blue oakleaf, five-bar swordtail, great crow, and tree nymph.  Mammals include purple-faced leaf monkey, ruddy mongoose, Sri Lanka flameback and dusky-striped squirrel, and yellow-spotted chevrotain.

Day 17;                                  March 17th

This morning we drive back to Colombo Airport to connect with flights home, or continue with the extension to Wilpattu National Park and Trincomalee in search of blue whales.


Whale-watching extension:

Days 01 – 03                      March 17th to 19th 

Bidding farewell to those not on the extension we drive to Anuradhapura, where we spend the next three nights.  During our time here we visit Wilpattu National Park, largest national park  in Sri Lanka, as well as the ruined city of Anuradhapura, capital of Sri Lanka for nearly 1400 years from 380BC until the capital moved to Polunnaruwa.

Wilpattu National Park is famed for its “willus”, natural depressions that fill with rainwater (an important water source for the wildlife of this arid part of Sri Lanka).  It is also well-known  for its leopard population, and we hope to catch a glimpse of one of these elegant cats.  Other mammals we hope to see are wild water buffalo, Asian elephant, mongooses, sambar and chital deer, and perhaps a sloth bear.  Wilpattu is also an excellent place for birdwatching, with many species being attracted to the willus, including painted and openbill storks, Eurasian spoonbill, and a host of raptors.

Anuradhapura, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was the centre of Theravada Buddhism for many centuries.  It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and from the 4th century BC was the capital of the Sinhalese people.  The ancient city is still sacred to Buddhists, and is surrounded by monasteries covering an area in excess of 16 square miles.

Day 04;                                  March 20th

After breakfast we continue our journey to Trincomalee (known affectionately as Trinco), where we spend four nights at our gorgeous beach resort.  Trinco is a sacred city for Sri Lankan Tamils, and for Hindus around the world, since it is home to many Hindu sites of historical importance, including Koneswaram Temple which dates from the 3rd century BC.

Days 05, 06, 07;                   March 21st to 23rd

During our three days near Trinco, we spend two days whale-watching in search of the magnificent blue whale.   The blue whale is the largest animal ever known to have lived, and the Indian Ocean population congregates off the coast of Sri Lanka at this time of year.  In addition to blue whales, we also hope to see sperm and Bryde’s whales, and spinner and bottlenose dolphins; as well Swinhoe’s Storm-petrel, and several species of skua and pelagic terns.

On the day we are not whale-watching we explore the area around Trinco looking for birds and mammals, and enjoying our lovely beach resort.  As usual, spotlighting activities will be offered in search of the nocturnal denizens of this area.

Day 08;                                  March 24th

Following breakfast we drive back to Colombo airport to connect with our flights home.

Trip pricing:

Wildlife Quest trips are budgeted for small groups. To avoid having to cancel trips with fewer members, we charge more for smaller groups to cover the fixed costs of the trip.

Cost per person sharing (USD $):        

Main tour:

6 participants $  9,595.00 3 participants $  10,295.00
5 participants $  9,745.00 2 participants $  10,995.00
4 participants $  9,995.00 Single supplement $    1,995.00

Whale-watching extension:

6 participants $  4,495.00 3 participants $   4,995.00
5 participants $  4,595.00 2 participants $   5,495.00
4 participants $  4,795.00 Single supplement $   1,195.00


  • All accommodation
  • All transfers and transportation, including transfers to and from the airport for the designated group flight at the start and end of the tour
  • All park entrance fees
  • All meals
  • Drinking water
  • Services of Holly Faithfull and local guides throughout
  • Tips for local guides, porters etc

Not included:

  • International air fare to and from Sri Lanka
  • Beverages, other than drinking water
  • Items of a personal nature, such as phone calls, laundry etc
  • Airport departure tax
  • Trip cancellation or interruption insurance

What is the trip like?

Sri Lanka is an easy place to travel, with just normal good health necessary.  Flexibility, sense of humor, and open-mindedness are always required.  Wildlife viewing takes place during nature walks on rainforest trails and by vehicle.  The walks cover a variety of terrain and are usually on well-marked trails.   Accommodations range from comfortable hotels to lovely  lodges, all with private bathrooms, electricity, and hot/cold water.  There is quite a bit of driving on this trip as it is the best way to get around and to see the country.  Roads vary from excellent 2-lane paved roads to rough, backcountry roads.  Rough road driving is compensated for by the beautiful scenery.

Many of Sri Lanka’s most sought-after mammals are nocturnal, and so we undertake many night-time spotlighting walks and drives.  Some of these may keep us out very late, but there will always be time to sleep in the next day.  These spotlighting events are also optional, and we will be as flexible as possible in arranging for participants to return to the hotel when they are ready.


The climate in Sri Lanka is generally hot and humid, but March is the best time to visit the island, with predominantly dry weather.  Temperatures will be in the 80s during the day.  March is in the dry season, but Sri Lanka is tropical and you can expect some rain at any time of the year.

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