The Big Five of Sri Lanka

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The big five in Africa are the lion, leopard, black rhinoceros, African bush elephant, and African buffalo. They are examples of charismatic large animals, featuring prominently in popular culture, and are among the most famous of Africa’s large animals. The term was coined by big-game hunters, and refers to the five most difficult animals in Africa to hunt on foot, but is now more widely used by game-viewing tourists and safari tour operators

1. Sri Lankan Leopard

The Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is one of the largest leopard subspecies native to Sri Lanka. The leopard is a solitary hunter, with the exception of females with young. Males’ ranges typically overlap the smaller ranges of several females, as well as portions of the ranges of neighbouring males, although exclusive core areas are apparent.

They are more active and prefer hunting at night, but are also somewhat active during dawn, dusk, and daytime hours. The Sri Lankan leopard rarely hauls their kills into trees, which is likely due to the lack of intraguild competition and the relative abundance of prey. 

Since the leopard is the top predator in Sri Lanka, it’s relatively easy to watch this animal here compared to the African subcontinent. The leopard has an islandwide distribution occurring in protected areas, such as national parks, and isolated forest patches in the hill country and areas with suitable habitat. 

Yala National Park is your key destination for big cat safaris in Sri Lanka, home to the highest concentration of leopards per square kilometre than anywhere else in the world. Next is the Wilpattu National Park north of Colombo. However, leopards can be witnessed in almost every national park due to their extremely adaptable nature. Other areas where the leopards can be seen are Horton Plains National Park, Kumana National Park and also Lunugamvehera National Park.

Yala National Park records the highest strike rate of 33% (1:3) which could be as high as 50% (1:2) during dry periods.

2. Sri Lankan Elephant

The Sri Lankan elephant (Elephas maximus maximus) is native to Sri Lanka and one of three recognised subspecies of the Asian elephant. Elephants are present in Udawalawe National Park, Yala National Park, Lunugamvehera National Park, Wilpattu National Park and Minneriya National Park but also live outside protected areas. It is estimated that Sri Lanka has the highest density of elephants in Asia.

Sri Lankan elephants are restricted mostly to the lowlands in the dry zone where they are still fairly widespread in north, south, east, north-western, north-central and south-eastern Sri Lanka. A small remnant population exists in the Peak Wilderness Sanctuary.

Udawalawe National Park is the park in the world where you are guaranteed a 100% strike rate of seeing elephants on any given day.

The Great Elephant Gathering

Each year, during the dry season, Minneriya National Park attracts what Lonely Planet refers to as “One of the 10 Greatest Wildlife Wonders of the World”. Between July and October, large numbers of elephants gather on the grasslands of the 1700 year old ancient Minneriya Reservoir considered as one of the world’s most spectacular wildlife phenomenons.

Every day, as evening falls, small groups of elephants start coming out from the surrounding wilderness to the lake bed for water and the grass. The number of the gathering could be from about 100 to as many as 400 at its peak, from August to September.

3. Sri Lankan Sloth Bear

The Sloth Bear is native to Nepal, Bhutan, India and Sri Lanka, the Sri Lankan Sloth bear is a sub-species that is endemic to the Island. According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species the Sloth Bear was found in Bangladesh but is now possibly extinct.

The Sri Lankan Sloth Bear is a subspecies of the sloth bear which is found mainly in lowland dry forests in the island of Sri Lanka. Being omnivorous, it feeds on nuts, berries, and roots, as well as carrion and meat. One of its main staples is insects, which it removes from rotting stumps and trees with its long, hairless snout. Otherwise, it rarely kills animals. 

The sloth bear is a shy and reclusive animal, only found in pairs during breeding or when one encounters a mother and cub. Occasionally, they are also found in pairs when there are seasonal bounties of rich food, as during the season when trees as ‘Palu’ fruits. 

The Sloth Bears’ general habitat is heavily forested areas with rock outcrops and caves in the dry zone of Sri Lanka. When wandering around or at rest, these bears are known to emit noisy grunts and snorts. Wilpattu and Yala National Parks are the best places to see this bear.

The strike rate of Sloth Bears at Yala is 20% in Yala. This Improves to about 35% (1 in 3) during the fruiting of Palu in June/July. Sri Lanka is considered the number 1 spot in the world to see Sloth Bear.

4. Blue Whale

The whale is called Thalmaha in Sinhala. Whales are the largest animal ever to exist on Earth. The magnificent and iconic blue whale was previously hunted almost to the brink of extinction by commercial whaling activities and remains an endangered species today. They can measure at 30 m (98 ft) in length and weigh up to 170 tonnes (190 tons). Sri Lanka is probably the best place in the world to see blue whales.

The colony of blue whales found in Sri Lankan waters, in the Northern Indian Ocean are unique as they are non migratory living off the shores of Sri Lanka the whole year around unlike other blue whales that annually migrate to cold, polar waters to feed. Blue whales are most commonly seen in the waters around Sri Lanka. Next is the sperm whale. You can also see fin whales, Bryde’s whales, short-finned whales, whale sharks, dolphins and rarely killer whales on whale watching trips.

There are 3 areas which have become world hot spots for Blue whales which have a 70% – 90% strike rate based on the time of the season. These are seas off Trincomalee , Mirissa and Kalpitiya.

The best locations for Sperm whales are off the coast of Mirissa between December and March, and off Trincomalee between March and July. As a tourist destination, Mirissa is far more developed compared to the other 2 locations.

See here for tips on Whale Watching in Sri Lanka

5. Sperm Whale

Sperm whales are the largest of the toothed whales and are named for the waxy liquid called spermaceti found in their heads. Sperm whales regularly dive to depths of one kilometre to feed, although they can dive as far as three kilometres, making them the third deepest diving animals on the planet falling behind only southern elephant seal and Cuvier’s beaked whale.

Females and young Sperm Whale males live together in groups, while mature males (bulls) live solitary lives outside of the mating season. Mature males average 16 metres (52 ft) in length, with the head representing up to one-third of the animal’s length. It has the largest brain on Earth, more than five times heavier than a human’s. Sperm whales can live 70 years or more.

Sri Lanka is one of the top 10 sites in the world to see sperm whales, and the number one destination for super-pods, a dozen to hundreds assembled and visible at the same time. A gathering off Trincomalee in March 2012 may have numbered up to 250. Since then, superpods of up to 350 animals have appeared several times offshore in the Gulf of Mannar, mostly during March and April. Lanka may in fact be the only place on earth to witness these gatherings regularly. They may happen every year.

Because they spend so much time beneath the surface in the open ocean far from land, we know very little about sperm whales. Their first-ever underwater footage, taken in Lankan waters as it happens, came only in 1984. Once a day or so, they like to lie at the surface, amiably socializing: lying quietly side by side and nuzzling one another or vocalizing back and forth.

See here for tips on Whale Watching in Sri Lanka

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