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Wildlife in Sri Lanka – expect the unexpected

wildlife sri lanka

Sometimes the most unexpected of places can hold the most amazing surprises

When I think about traveling to see and experience wildlife in their natural habitats, especially big game animals, my mind jumps straight to Africa. Not just me I think, right?

But often times I’ve found that places you might not think about can also offer really special opportunities to see wild animals. Take Sri Lanka for example. Seriously guys, who has wildlife expectations for Sri Lanka? Not this girl.  

So in addition to recently sharing my thoughts about improving your wildlife photography with Adobe, I am going to keep along the same thread and share my stories of wildlife on my most recent trip to Sri Lanka with you guys.

wildlife sri lanka

I first visited Sri Lanka a few years ago for a travel conference and was lucky enough to spend a few days traveling around beforehand getting a little teaser for the country. Let’s be honest here, I had no idea what to expect from Sri Lanka. I imagined it would be like India Lite.

I was only there for a week and I left unsatisfied. I wanted more.

Until I heard about the amazing Yala National Park, famous for its leopards. It didn’t occur to me that I could go on safari in Sri Lanka, let alone on safari to see leopards.

A year later I got my first little glimpse of a leopard while on Safari in South Africa. It was after dark and we tracked it for hours, before we caught sight of it sauntering by the jeep under a red light. (Red lights are often used on night safaris as not to blind the nocturnal animals).

It was quick, and I definitely didn’t get a photo, so I was itching to try my luck again. When the invite came to return to Sri Lanka this year, I knew it was my chance, especially because Yala National Park is known for its high density of leopards.

wildlife sri lanka

It was hot and humid when I finally arrived at Cinnamon Wild Yala. The first thing I noticed was the wild animal sign on the road entrance, marking the dates the last time some of the famous animals were spotted on the road.

Elephants, leopards, jackals and the infamous sloth bear!

I love staying at unfenced safari lodges where you never know what might wander around your cabin at night.

wildlife sri lanka

As it turns out, while it was mind-blowingly awesome to watch leopards in the wild, it was the combination with all the other wildlife that truly blew me away.

So I’ve put together a list of 10 amazing animals you can spot in the wild in Sri Lanka, in Yala National Park but also around the whole country. 

Nothing is fenced, after all, except for a few local villages with elephant problems.

I’ve left off the usual suspects like monkeys, elephants and crocs to keep things more exciting for you guys.

wildlife sri lanka

In partnership with Adobe and the Creative Cloud Photography plan, I’ve included tips and tricks for shooting and editing wild animals and to show you how I was able to take these shots while on safari in Sri Lanka. These shooting tips and post-processing techniques are what I use day in and day out when exploring my passions of wildlife photography.

Note, safaris usually run around sunrise and sunset when the animals are most active, so I armed myself with cameras. My Canon 5D Mark III with the 70-300mm telephoto lens and my older Canon 70D with the 24-70 f/2.8 wide lens (just in case – you don’t usually need a wide lens on safari unless the elephants get too close for comfort) as my back up, and I was ready to go.

When on safari, you also want the biggest telephoto or zoom lens possible so you can capture animals that are really far away, which they often are. 

wildlife sri lanka

1. Leopards

Yala National Park has the highest leopard concentration in the world, and found all over the country. However, they  are also an apex predator in Sri Lanka, so they have little to fear which means that can be much easier to spot than in Africa.

I saw three when I was in Yala. One under a tree a million miles away, one on the infamous Leopard Rock at sunset my second night there, and finally a young leopard hiding behind the bushes near the jeep.


wildlife sri lanka

Editing tip:

The conditions for shooting this leopard were nothing short of terrible. The sun had already disappeared for the day, so it was dark. I also had about 1 second’s notice to get the shot. We didn’t know the leopard was there and before we knew what was happening, the jeep sped off faster than a rocket, and the safari guy was poking me on the shoulder pointing. Ultimately, I wanted the leopard to pop in my photo and be the main focal point, so I played with a few radial filters in Lightroom to create blur around him while sharpening and brightening him up.

wildlife sri lanka

2. All the birds

You guys know I am a big bird nerd, so I was stoked to get in some bird watching on safari – sadly, something that’s a bit rare.

I learned that  many people who come to Yala only want to see the leopards, and miss out on some amazing adventures and other special creatures. I immediately asked our driver to avoid the beaten path, and show us all Yala had to offer. 

My favorite bird was probably the Hornbill, only because they are huge and seriously freaky looking.

However, I also loved the kingfishers. They are the cutest birds, with their fat little bodies, big flat heads and long beaks. In Yala, many of the kingfishers were bright blue, making them easy to spot.

wildlife sri lanka

Hornbill shooting tip:

My in-camera trick is a basic one – you need a fast shutter speed for shooting birds because they move fast. I usually keep it at a minimum of 1/500, but it’s important to remember than it should be inverse of your focal length. So if you are shooting at 300mm, min. shutter speed of 1/300. Makes sense?

wildlife sri lanka

Kingfisher editing tip:

This was shot at 300mm with the bird in the shade and harsh contrasting daylight. Not ideal conditions by any means but you work with what you have. Because my ISO was at 3200 I had a lot of noise in the image which I reduced down using radial filters.

3. Warthogs

I found Pumba guys!

wildlife sri lanka

Shooting and editing tip:

As you learn more and more about photography, something you need to start paying attention to is that colorful little bar graph on the image, both in-camera and in Lightroom, called the histogram. Histograms are important because they help you get your exposure right, or as good as possible.

Trust me, it’s not as intimidating as it sounds.

The left side of the graph is blacks and shadows and the right side is whites and highlights. Ideally you want the majority of your data in the middle of the histogram, with neither side being clipped. Makes sense?

wildlife sri lanka

4. Cobras 

We found this little guy up north near a hotel, rather than in Yala. The safari guide usually moves them back into a national park away from people, but let me take a few photos first.

While cobras are super-fast, when they realize they can’t get away, they stand up and posture with their hoods out, making a stand, trying to intimidate. Speaking from firsthand experience, it works.

A long telephoto is a must.

wildlife sri lanka

Post processing tip:

The most important thing was catching the sharpness of the hood and face. I emphasized that in Lightroom by brushing clarity and sharpness around the snake’s upper body, improving the shadows.

wildlife sri lanka

5. Kangaroo lizard

These lizards are so fun to watch because they hop away like kangaroos! Tiny and small, they can be hard to find.

wildlife sri lanka

Shooting tip:

For shooting small animals it’s important to keep in mind the minimal focal distance of your lens – this means how close you can get to your subject and have it in focus. For my 70-300mm, it’s 1.2 meters – that’s how far away you have to be to get the object in focus. For small animals especially, you want to be as close as possible.

6. Peacocks

We had a running joke by the end about how many points each animal was worth spotting. If a leopard was worth 100 points, then a peacock was worth 5 points. You will be sick of seeing them by the end of safari. They are everywhere. But they are beautiful.

The males are the flamboyant ones, and have the stunning colorful plumes, and while mating season was over and they were losing their famous tail feathers, we did manage to spot one or two that had most of them left.

I even managed to bring a few feathers home with me (not from Yala) AND New Zealand customs let me keep them!

wildlife sri lanka

Lightroom tip:

Use the radial filter to darken and blur outside of the subject to mimic the effect of using a high aperture.

wildlife sri lanka

7. Mongoose

With a bright red nose and long chubby bodies like ferrets, a mongoose is a curious, yet vicious creature. Watch out.

wildlife sri lanka

Editing tip:

Dynamic range is the difference between the brighter and darker areas in a photo – different cameras have different dynamic ranges, but it’s something to take into account for wildlife photography. Oftentimes you have to decide between the bright sky or an object in the foreground. You can also moderately fix this in post processing using a graduated filter, especially if you are shooting with RAW files (which you should be).

wildlife sri lanka

8. Jackal

It was so cool to see jackals in the wild. An animal I didn’t even know inhabited Sri Lanka, I was excited to see one skipping across the field one day while driving around.

wildlife sri lanka

Photography tip:

It may seem obvious, but always have your camera ready to go in your lap while on safari, you’ll always be surprised by something!

9. Jungle fowl

Jungle Fowl, or a jungle chicken as I like to think of them, is the national bird of Sri Lanka. Bright and beautiful they are easy to spot and you’ll likely see a few of them. I love colorful creatures.

wildlife sri lanka

Editing tip:

These types of animals allow you to go wild with the colors but be sure to not saturate too much, and be careful with the yellows. Oftentimes you need to  play with the yellow shades in an image to have that perfect balance.

10. Monitor lizards

Again, monitor lizards are animals I don’t really want to see in any situation except for from a safari jeep. But as it turns out, I saw one or two enormous ones just basking on the side of the road and even underneath some of the fruit stalls. Um, no thank you.

wildlife sri lanka

Capture tip:

With an animal as fast as a monitor lizard, it’s important to get the focal points right in camera. I was shooting this from a safari jeep on the side of the road in the shade and only had a few seconds. Since it was moving through the tall grass, I had to time it perfectly to capture its face between long blades of grass and to make sure I had his eyes in focus. I shoot with my back focus on and I have learned very quickly to move the focal points around with my finger to get them on his face.

Practice makes perfect.

Are you into wildlife travels and photography? What animals would you hope to spot on safari? Is Sri Lanka on your bucket list?

wildlife sri lanka

Many thanks to Adobe for helping with this post and allowing me to make my photos as perfect as possible. Like always I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own – like you could expect less from me!

44 Responses to Wildlife in Sri Lanka – expect the unexpected

  1. Kate July 7, 2016 at 7:47 pm #

    Great photos and great tips! Thanks for sharing!

    • Liz July 8, 2016 at 8:29 am #


  2. Our Wanders July 7, 2016 at 8:44 pm #

    Now it is definitely on our bucket list! 🙂 Never heard about Sri Lanka safaris until now… Love your shots!

    • Liz July 8, 2016 at 8:29 am #


  3. Denise July 8, 2016 at 9:04 am #

    OMG-As a bird nerd myself ( I just returned from the Galapagos Islands and saw Blue Footed Boobies/Albatrosss/Red Footed boobies) After seeing a Kea on PBS I came to your beautiful NZ, I have been to Kenya twice in the last year and had an EPIC safari experience. I had no idea about Sri Lanka–I think I need to put it on my list. Thanks for sharing all your photo tips also. Sometimes photographers don’t like to share their secrets or tips which is sad because we all are there to see and share the wonders of the world.

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:41 pm #

      oh wow!! that’s amazing, I’d love to go to the Galapagos.

  4. Rosh July 8, 2016 at 10:12 pm #


    Is so awesome, your tips and photograph lessons.
    Thank you so much
    Yes, Sri Lanka is on my bucket list too, hope to visit the place this year
    Love wild life,culture and people.
    Thanks for sharing your tips

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:41 pm #


  5. Raphael Alexander The Man of Wonders July 8, 2016 at 11:09 pm #

    I’m surprised you didn’t uploaded the epic #elfie haha. Nice shots Joven Aventurera!

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:41 pm #

      haha next time

  6. India Tour Packages July 8, 2016 at 11:36 pm #

    Great posts, it really most famous Wildlife Sri Lanka adventures of sharing the Wonderful photography.

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:41 pm #


  7. Keri | Ladies What Travel July 9, 2016 at 3:41 am #

    I adored the wildlife in Sri Lanka, totally the highlight to my trip. So many colourful birds and the hotel we stayed in had a butterfly garden, resident monitor lizards and two troops of monkeys. Bliss!

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:41 pm #

      I loved the birds too!

  8. Brooklyn @ justbeingbrooklyn July 9, 2016 at 9:05 am #

    I had no idea that it was possible to go on safari in Sri Lanka. How cool!

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:43 pm #

      It’s one of the best things there

  9. Syam Trekker July 9, 2016 at 7:19 pm #

    Great posting about Wildlife in Sri Lanka – expect the unexpected, and nice pictures too..

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:44 pm #


  10. Taj Mahal Tour Packages July 9, 2016 at 8:25 pm #

    Wow! it’s really awesome Wildlife Sir Lanka destination enjoy for the travellers.

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:44 pm #


    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:45 pm #

      it is!

  11. Allison Green July 10, 2016 at 5:38 am #

    Wow! Thanks for all the excellent advice. I love Lightroom and I feel comfortable with the basic settings by now, but this is a good intro into stepping up my photo editing game.

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:45 pm #

      Thanks glad to be of help!

  12. Joy Sheehan July 10, 2016 at 1:54 pm #

    As a travel blogging wildlife biologist who’s also obsessed with photography, this was one of my favorite posts of yours!!! Such excellent photos and a lot of sound advice! Wishing I had the money for Photoshop and/or Lightroom!

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

      Awesome that makes me happy to hear, Adobe Creative Cloud is worth every penny!

  13. Kathy Kelliher July 10, 2016 at 7:01 pm #

    Thanks Liz, enjoyed your tips & tricks! I am loving putting these into practice on the farm. Not as exciting as safari but plenty of subjects to photograph none the less!

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:46 pm #


  14. Victoria | Girl Tries Life July 11, 2016 at 12:42 am #

    LOVE that you incorporated photo and editing tricks into this. I got some great new ideas that I’ll be putting into practice.

    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 12:46 pm #

      Yay thanks!

  15. nikedis July 12, 2016 at 2:39 pm #


    • Liz July 12, 2016 at 6:23 pm #


  16. Kate July 13, 2016 at 10:42 am #

    At the start of 2017 I am travelling around the world and donating money that I have raised to 5 associations of my choice.. and the Sri Lanka Wildlife Conservation Society is one of them! I am so excited to be donating to a foundation that is doing so much good, and I am just as excited to see that amazing animals that are in Sri Lanka. This post has filled my heart. Thank you so much X

    • Liz July 13, 2016 at 1:05 pm #

      oh that’s so amazing, they need it!

  17. Cara July 15, 2016 at 7:40 pm #

    Wow, the wildlife in Sri Lanka looks amazing and definitely worth a visit. I didn’t realise Yala National Park has the highest leopard concentration in the world. Zambia and Botswana are good places to visit to watch them too.Watching wild leopards is like watching poetry in motion. They’re incredibly self-sufficient, powerful and majestic, and a real thrill to watch.

    • Liz July 17, 2016 at 12:14 pm #

      Leopards are so awesome!!

    • Suny | Online Flight Booking August 3, 2016 at 10:56 pm #

      Hi Cara,

      Awesome blog posts! This is amazing travel destination for the travellers. Thank you very much to providing the Wildlife Sri Lanka.

  18. Sumit Srivastava September 22, 2016 at 6:58 pm #

    Thats a great post thanks you very much

    • Liz September 23, 2016 at 1:31 pm #


  19. neha October 25, 2016 at 7:28 pm #

    this is really usefull information for every one and it’s really helped me a lot
    thank you for sharing

  20. Mark December 18, 2016 at 4:47 pm #

    Count yourself lucky. I’d love to go on a trip like that. Amazing experience!

  21. The Washington Coast December 18, 2016 at 4:48 pm #

    That looks like such a blow-your-mind kind of vacation! Awesome photos too! You must really really REALLY want to go back and do it all over again.

  22. Asanka Miah January 5, 2017 at 8:08 pm #

    I found your post very interesting, although I am not a professional photographer, so of course camera tricks is not for me. But still I enjoyed the article because I saw some birds and animals very closely which I haven’t saw earlier.
    I love the title of the post “Expect the Unexpected”
    Sri Lanka is really a place where you can “Expect the Unexpected” wonders!


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