Leopard in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Wildlife of Sri Lanka: A Guide to the Country's Most Intriguing Species

Leopard in Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Located off the southeast coast of India, Sri Lanka has only recently begun to emerge as a burgeoning ecotourism hotspot. But the wildlife of Sri Lanka is remarkable for an island measuring just 25,332 square miles, boasting a impressively high rate of endemic species (16% of the fauna and 23% of the flowering plants).

With over 120 species of mammals, 171 species of reptiles, 106 species of amphibians, 227 species of birds, and one of the world’s largest populations of blue whales and sperm whales, Sri Lanka is truly an animal-lover’s dream come true. Here are a few of the more intriguing species you might find there:


Sloth Bear: These medium-sized (average 290 pounds) bears evolved during the early Pleistocene era, and can be distinguished from Asian black bears by their lanky builds, shaggier coats, pale muzzles and white claws. They also have a specially adapted lower lip and palate, which the nocturnal insectivores use to feed on termites, honeybee colonies. The isolated Sri Lankan population is a subspecies, and currently classified as vulnerable by the IUCN.

Dugong: Related to the elephant, the dugong looks like a manatee, but with the fluke tail of a whale. Currently listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), these gentle underwater grazers are believed to have been the original inspiration for seafaring sailors’ tales of mermaids and sirens.

Indian Pangolin: Often referred to as “scaly anteaters” because they’re covered in a thick protective armor of overlapping scales, pangolins are among the world’s most endangered groups of mammals. Nocturnal and usually resting in deep burrows during the day, the pangolin is tough enough to curl into a ball and defend itself from a tiger or leopard attack.


Sri Lankan Leopard: This endemic subspecies, which is smaller than the Indian leopard (average 94 pounds and around four feet body length), is currently listed as endangered by the IUCN. But the southeastern coastal arid zone of Yala National Park boasts the world’s highest density of wild leopards, with studies estimating an adult population of 18 individuals on one 39-square mile block of the park.

Red Slender Loris: This small, nocturnal primate is a focal species of the EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) conservation project – a distinction reserved for animals with few close evolutionary relatives. Found only in Sri Lanka’s rainforests, their small size (7-10 inches tall, weighing around onr pound), huge eyes and prominent ears give them an endearingly odd appearance.

Golden Palm Civet: Appearing on the country’s three-rupee postage stamp, the golden palm civet is an endemic species found only in a 7,000-square mile area of Sri Lanka that includes lowland rainforest, evergreen mountain forests and dense monsoon forests. Currently listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN’s endangered species list, the animal is often confused with the Ruddy Mongoose by locals.

Purple-faced Langur: Once commonly found in Sri Lanka’s wet zone villages and the suburbs of Colombo (the capital city), this endemic Old World monkey is now on the IUCN’s Endangered list due to habitat loss caused by rapid urbanization. Primarily found in densely populated rainforests, their distinctive vocalizations (which include harsh barks and whoops) have been mistaken for leopards.


Sri Lankan Elephant:
Yala National Park is renowned as one of the best places to see this endangered endemic species, which can also be seen in Udawalawe, Lunugamvehera, Wilpattu and Minneriya National Parks, as well as unprotected areas. In fact, Sri Lanka is estimated to have the highest density of elephants in all of Asia, despite the population decline caused by habitat loss and fragmentation.

Sri Lankan Jackal: This golden jackal subspecies, which is also known as the Southern Indian jackal, grows to be slightly larger than their mainland cousins (which average 28 inches long and weigh around 15 pounds). Their winter coat is also shorter, smoother and not as shaggy, with speckled black-and-white backs and colors that range from a warm tan to a rusty ochre.

Sri Lankan Spotted Chevrotain: Fairly common in forests throughout Sri Lanka’s dry zone (both protected and otherwise), this striped and white-spotted chevrotain is frequently seen in coconut plantations and home gardens. Also known as the mouse-deer, these tiny creatures are among the smallest ungulates in the world, weighing just 10-15 pounds and measuring around 21 inches in length.

How to Go

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