Sri Lanka

Leopards in some of Sri Lanka’s game reserves are so accustomed to protection that they sometimes come out to greet and inspect visitors. As the last island stop before Antarctica for some avian migrants, Sri Lanka attracts huge numbers in winter from as far away as western Europe.

Marco Polo in 1290 described this teardrop in the Indian Ocean just south of India—then called Ceylon—as “the finest island of its size in all the world.”  

Sri Lanka is where legend says Adam, banished from the Garden of Eden, first set foot on earth. If so, it may have been an easy transition to this beautiful place with its treasure of interesting wildlife.

Most famous is the elephant, celebrated and decorated in festivals and valued over the centuries for assistance to humans in tasks of war and peace. Many other species live only here, including the world’s smallest wild felines, a subspecies of the Indian rusty-spotted cat, little over a foot (30–35 cm) long, and, among 242 butterflies, one of the world’s largest—huge Southeast Asia birdwings, 10 inches (25 cm) across, a spectacular chartreuse and blue with black spots.

Wildlife preservation here dates back through earliest known records. The world’s first wildlife sanctuary was created by King Devanampiya Tissa in the third century BC. King Nissanka Malla (AD 1187–97) in Polonnaruwa banned all killing of animals within seven gaw (24 miles/39 km) of the city. More than 12 percent of the country now is set aside as wildlife sanctuary, with 11 national parks and more planned.

Leopards, among 86 mammals here, are so accustomed to protection in some places that these usually reticent cats sometimes come out to greet visitors. (It helps that tigers, which prey upon leopards elsewhere, are not present.) Shaggy sloth bears amble about, five deer species graze, porcupines bristle and rattle foot-long spines. Slender loris curl up and nap by day—tiny, bigeyed, nocturnal but easy to detect since they wash hands and feet in urine to mark territory everywhere they go.

Long-tailed gray langur monkeys and toque macaques swing through treetops. Homely oneton (908-kg) dugongs, gentle marine mammals once incredibly mistaken by sailors for mermaids (after long cruises, it’s said), ease along offshore shallows.

Flying fox bats roost in cacophonous forest canopy groups. Over 450 bird species are here, including 26 endemics, with storks, fish-eagles, spoonbills, hornbills, and bright orioles, minivets, and bee-eaters. Since this is the last island stop north of Antarctica, it is seasonal home for huge numbers of migrants from as far away as western Europe and Siberia, here to escape northern winters in and around these 11,200 beautiful lakes or “tanks” (none natural, but most looking so, built by ancient monarchs for irrigation).

Fifty-four kinds of fish include glorious red scissor-tailed barbs and ornate paradise fish (unfortunately coveted by collectors). Two crocodile species frequent freshwater lakes and streams among 40 kinds of amphibians. Some 90 kinds of snakes are benign but six, relatively common, are poisonous—cobras, Russell’s and saw-scaled vipers, Indian and Sri Lankan kraits, and the endemic green pit-viper.

Regrettably terrorist activities have made some areas dangerous. Other hazards confronting wildlife include dam construction and habitat loss due to logging and clearing for agriculture and housing. Ironically, elephants tamed to work in timbering have helped reduce their own species’ wild habitat. Their numbers, once 19,000, now are down to several thousand and they are listed as endangered.

Best times to visit vary with monsoon seasons—in the southwest, best after September until April; in the northeast, best after March until November.