Sri Lanka is home to some of the most exciting wildlife in the world. Every day hundreds of jeeps set off into national parks to give visitors the chance to see wild animals in their natural habitat.
However, there is debate about whether Sri Lankan safaris are ethical.
While we were eager to experience a safari, we chose to avoid the most popular national park, Yala, due to some pretty horrible reports of overcrowding the animals and generally too many jeeps.
But what about Sri Lanka's other 20+ national parks? We decided to head to Udawalawe to experience first-hand what a Sri Lankan experience is like.
Sri Lankan Safari Ethical Considerations
The ethics of Sri Lanka's wildlife safaris are often questioned due to the high volume of traffic, over-crowding animals, and tour operator behavior. These things can impact wildlife, often altering natural behavior. It also negatively affects tourist perceptions and experiences while in Sri Lanka.
Hundreds of jeeps flood into Sri Lanka's national parks every day. Tour operators often communicate with each other upon a rare sighting and then hordes of jeeps crowd the animals while tourists snap photos.
If you think that sounds a little like a zoo, you're not alone.
This is a particular problem at Yala, which was why we avoided this national park.
Environmental impacts of jeeps
The constant traffic within the parks has caused pollution from dirty exhausts and lingering dust which has impacted the air quality for animals and humans in the area.
Tour operator standards
While many Sri Lankan tour operators are fantastic and great at their jobs, there are some who directly impact on the conditions and safety of the wildlife inside.
Some drivers have been known to drive recklessly inside the parks and on rare occasions injure or kill wildlife.
Our First-Hand Experience At Udawalawe National Park
Our alarm buzzed at 4am from our safari-style tent on the outskirts of Udawalawe National Park.
We were staying at Kottawatta Village, a perfect base for people embarking on a Sri Lankan safari.
We arrived late the night before and booked a driver and jeep. Hiring drivers is cheaper at the front entrance, but we wanted to experience sunrise inside the park so opted for the more convenient option.
We met our driver in the pre-dawn night. We shivered in the back of the open-air jeep as our driver sped to the Udawalawe entrance gates.
We arrived before the gates opened, and jeeps lined up one by one.
We found a local roadside woman selling cheap black coffee and veggie rotis and we ate breakfast in the back of the jeep.
Once the gates opened, the line of jeeps sped to the ticket office and our driver jumped out to beat the hordes of people filling the office.
Light began to fill parts of the sky, and right before the sun was up, our driver returned and we headed into the park, catching a spectacular sunrise along the way.
Our experience on safari
The number of jeeps was a little concerning, to begin with, especially as you're starting out at the same point.
We spotted a family of elephants immediately.
Our driver sat back at a good distance, turned off the engine. Within five minutes a few more jeeps arrived, some drivers pushing forward to get better views.
The elephants appeared unfazed, but it wasn't great to see.
This overcrowding has rare throughout the day. The entrance is busy in the morning, but Udawalawe is huge and once the jeeps spread out it feels like having the park to yourself.
We watched elephants bathe, spotted jackals, deer, crocodiles, monkeys, turtles, water buffalo and monitor lizards.
Was it ethical?
The best thing for wildlife is to be left entirely alone. For this reason, safaris can never be 100% ethical, however, Udawalawe is large enough to feel like you're having little impact.
Our driver was great, however, we observed other drivers who were less so. An example of this was when we caught sight of a family of elephants bathing. Our driver stopped at a distance so not to disturb the family, but once other jeeps saw us parked up, they came to inspect.
Soon there was close to 10 jeeps all crowding around with some drivers selfishly pushing too close to the elephants. This was uncomfortable to be a part of.
However, the rest of our experience at Udawalawe felt reasonably low impact.
List of Popular Safaris in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka has more than 20 national parks and a multitude of safari options.
Here are a few options:
The most popular safari in Sri Lanka. One of the reasons for its popularity is the high chance of spotting a wild leopard, however, the park can get very crowded, which can take away from the experience.
While Yala takes the title of most popular, Udawalawe often claims the title of best safari in Sri Lanka. This is due to the large amounts of wild elephants - you're almost 100% guaranteed to spot lots of them.
This is the largest national park and is a lot quieter than Yala or Udawalawe. It's located in the north outside of the ancient city, Anuradhapura.
Another national park which is great for a quieter experience. You'll find a lot of monkeys and elephants here.
If you're a bird-lover, Bundala is for you. But if you want to see elephants, you'll need to head to another park.
Sri Lanka's displaced wildlife find refuge at this national park, which the government created specifically to protect endangered animals.
Ethical behavior on safari
A lot of ethical behavior is dependant on your driver. But there are things you can do to minimize your negative impact while on safari in Sri Lanka.
Let your driver know your concerns
A lot of local tour operators feel tourists care more about photos than they do about the animals. By telling your driver its fine with you to sit further away from the wildlife, they're almost guaranteed to respect that.
Don't interact with wildlife
Observing from a distance is a powerful thing. Trying to get an elephant's attention for a photo isn't, and can even be dangerous.
Don't play music
We understand you're here for a good time, but this is the animal's home - you're the guest. Music will disturb them and also take away from other people's experiences. It's basic etiquette.
This surely goes without saying.
Sri Lanka is a safari
Alternatively, you don't even need to go on an animal safari to see Sri Lanka's incredible wildlife.
There are many road areas where wild elephants will walk right by you - and with no one else in sight.
While traveling Sri Lanka in our very own tuktuk, we saw almost every animal we'd seen while on safari, outside of the parks.
We passed a wild elephant on a secluded road, monkeys and buffalo almost everywhere we went - not to mention everything else.
Sri Lanka is wild, whether on safari or not.