Wildlife in Sri Lanka – expect the unexpected

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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!

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