Even by the pearl-studded standards of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka is a jewel. Visitors flock here for the rich and diverse culture, beautiful sand-sprinkled beaches and astoundingly varied wildlife. Elephants, monkeys, leopards, and sloth bears are the stars of the show on land, while whales and dolphins vie for attention off-shore.

However, Sri Lanka’s record on animal welfare is not so rosy, especially when it comes to elephants, which are often subjected to cruelty or kept in poor conditions, frequently in chains. Even in some national parks, the crowds of wildlife spotters can be visibly distressing to wild animals.

After years of campaigning from animal rights groups, a new wider-ranging Animal Welfare Bill will take effect in 2022 – which threatens “severe punishments” for animal cruelty. A particular focus on protecting Sri Lanka’s emblematic elephants will see each animal have their own biometric identity cards.

Some say the new laws don’t go far enough, so how do you enjoy the island's incredible wildlife in an ethical manner? Here are a few suggestions for responsible animal watching in Sri Lanka.

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Elephants crowded by jeeps
Always ask drivers to keep a healthy distance from wildlife © HildaWeges / Getty Images

See wildlife in the grassland at Uda Walawe National Park 

Often cited as Sri Lanka’s best national park, Uda Walawe rarely disappoints. Thanks mainly to the landscape of low forest and grassland, animals are easy to spot, especially elephants, with between 600 to 700 animals inside the park boundaries, often seen in herds up to 100.

Park tours are by motor vehicle, rather than on elephant-back, but crowding these wild animals can alter their natural behavior. Tell your driver to keep a healthy distance, and avoid the road-side stalls on the approach to the park selling fruit to feed to the elephants: it prompts the elephants to wait by the park fence, effectively begging for food.

Spot elephants, monkeys, and crocodiles at Bundala National Park

If you want to avoid the crowds hemming in the wildlife in larger national parks, compact little Bundala is a mesmerizing mix of islands, lagoons and dunes, and a wetland area of international significance. Often overshadowed by Yala National Park, its famous neighbor, Bundala is less frequently visited, so animals are relatively undisturbed by human presence.

Commonly seen residents include elephants (between 10 and 60 depending on season), langur monkeys and crocodiles. Otherwise, five species of marine turtle (olive ridley, green, leatherback, hawksbill and loggerhead) lay their eggs on the coast between October and January. The wetlands mean superb bird-watching too, and there are fewer visitors to scare them away.

A lone elephant in Minneriya National Park
The "gathering" at Minneriya National Park can mean visitors outnumber elephants © Tunart / Getty Images

Admire the elephant "gathering" from a distance at Minneriya and Kaudulla National Parks

In the flatlands of north-central Sri Lanka, the national parks of Minneriya and Kaudulla form a giant corridor for elephants to move relatively freely across a large area. The parks are most famous for the annual "gathering", from July to September: this is when elephants congregate in vast herds as lake water recedes, giving way to fresh grass.

However, thanks to the parks’ popularity, people sometimes outnumber the 1300 or so elephants, and there have been reports of animals being chased and corralled in by 4WDs so passengers can get good photos.

When we visited, drivers kept their distance and the elephants seemed undisturbed by our vehicles; we saw two young bulls stroll casually between parked 4WDs as if they were nothing more than a clump of trees. To give the herds breathing space, bring a long camera lens and encourage your driver not to participate in the scrum to get close to elephants for photos.

Take responsible whale-watching tours at Mirissa

The southern coastal town of Mirissa is famous for two reasons: its beautiful beach is a favorite backpacker party destination, and it’s an excellent place to see whales. Top of the bill are blue whales, as well as bryde whales, sperm whales, and various species of dolphin. Boat tours are easy to arrange and, best of all, Mirissa has reputable operators who respect welfare guidelines about cetaceans.

Ethical operators take small groups on small boats, approaching pods slowly, keeping a good distance, and avoiding practices such as "leap-frogging", where boats race ahead of whales so that animals will pass close by for photos. They should also switch engines into neutral if the animals actively come over to the boat and avoid groups of mothers and young completely. 

Cetaceans are so abundant here that there is no need for operators to crowd the whales, and better operators will move on in search of other whales if a pod is already being observed by several boats.

Elephant family crossing a jungle track
Ask questions about the ethics of elephant orphanages before your visit © Olivier Schram / Getty Images

Avoid elephant orphanages 

Elephant orphanages are popular tourist attractions in Sri Lanka. However, many breed elephants in captivity for public display. One such example is the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage, near Kegalle.

As Gabriel Fava, Senior Policy Advisor at the Born Free Foundation, told Lonely Planet: “Breeding of wild animals in captivity should only occur where a conservation strategy for the species exists. This includes clear plans for the reintroduction of captive-bred animals to the wild, where possible.”

From December 2021, the international wildlife charity no longer supports any elephant orphanages in Sri Lanka. It had previously worked with the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe.

Note that there is a large discrepancy between an elephant orphanage and what the animals experience in the wild. Outside of captivity, a memory of elephants is a self-selected social group. Removing a calf from its cow (mother) causes both animals emotional distress. Elephants typically walk around 15km a day rather than staying in a single, small area.

Additionally, "breaking in" an elephant often involves the animal being beaten and starved, so it can learn to carry people and perform "tricks". Being fed in captivity makes elephants reliant on humans and less able to be reintroduced into the wild.

The most ethical way to see these magnificent creatures remains in the national parks of Minneriya and Kaudulla where they are free to roam.

A dolphin leaping off Sri Lanka's east coast
Speak with boat operators about your expectations when it comes to animal encounters © Dhammika Heenpella / Images of Sri Lanka / Getty Images

Uppuveli is an alternative whale- and dolphin-watching destination

As an alternative to well-developed Mirissa, the northern beach village of Uppuveli, near Trincomalee, is staking its claim as a whale and dolphin-watching destination. Boat trips leave the beach every morning, but tourism is a fledgling industry here, and responsible wildlife viewing remains a new concept.

Understandably, the local boat operators are eager to please their clients, but there have been reports of boats getting too close to the animals (with a risk of propellers causing injury). Tourists can play a part in promoting good practice by insisting that boat operators keep a responsible distance from wild cetaceans. Seeing whales or dolphins from further away will still be a highlight of your trip.

A spotted cat-like creature lies in the dirt near a tree and looks into the camera with its yellow eyes
The national parks are the best places to see creatures in the wild © Volodymyr Burdiak / Shutterstock

Questions and considerations for responsible animal watching in Sri Lanka 

In some places, operators are already aware of the best ways to approach wildlife without disturbing these wild animals, but tourists can do a lot to encourage responsible animal watching in Sri Lanka. Here are some tips:

Go wild  

The best way to see any wild animal is, er, in the wild. In Sri Lanka, this usually means in the country’s national parks (or the waters off-shore).

Avoid elephant orphanages

Destinations billed as an elephant ‘sanctuary’ or ‘orphanage’ should be avoided. Most are marginally better than the zoos, circuses, and logging camps they claim to be rescuing elephants from. As of December 2021, the Born Free Foundation, an international wildlife charity, no longer supports any orphanages in Sri Lanka.

Don’t ride elephants

Although Sri Lanka has a long history of elephant riding, there is growing awareness of the harm that this can cause. Animal welfare bodies cite mistreatment from handlers, cruelty in the way elephants are trained to accept riders, and spinal injuries caused by wooden howdahs (saddles) used to carry passengers. If a place offers elephant rides, do the ethical thing and walk away.

Safari solo

When visiting national parks, it’s usual to hire an open-top "safari jeep" and driver, and if you hire your own jeep, you can tell the driver to avoid getting too close to elephants or other animals. Sharing the ride with others may reduce costs, but other passengers may not share your concerns.

Watch whales responsibly

When arranging whale and dolphin-watching trips, make it clear when booking, and before you pay, that you don’t want to have a negative impact on the animals. Seek reputable operators – Raja & the Whales, Whale Watching Club, and Whale Warriors all adhere to international whale watching regulations – and avoid rogues who promise "very close shots" or "swimming with dolphins", as both activities can distress or injure the animals.

Speak out

Wherever possible, let local operators know that you won’t pay for tours where animals are harmed, and explain your concerns to boat operators, drivers, guides, and trackers to raise awareness. Many operators are used to visitors who want nothing more than a selfie next to a whale or elephant, and responsible wildlife-watching is a relatively new idea in Sri Lanka. Expressing that you are not one of those tourists may help make a difference.

Put your money where your mouth is

Financial leverage is important. If enough travelers boycott bad operators, and only pay for trips that follow ethical standards, operators will shift their practices accordingly. As a traveler, you can play a vital part in encouraging change, and improving the future for Sri Lanka’s animal populations.

Introducing Sri Lanka

You might also like:
The top 18 things to do in Sri Lanka: Experience the best of this island nation  
12 places that should feature on every Sri Lanka itinerary  
On board Sri Lanka's most epic train journeys  

This article was first published March 2019 and updated February 2022

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