The word safari is a lot of times linked with Africa. Asia’s Sri Lanka, however, is not far behind when it comes to abundance of wildlife. Sri Lanka currently boasts of 26 national parks, declared as protected areas by their Department of Wildlife Conservation. Read on below why you should try the Bundala National Park Safari – a Sri Lankan hit for bird enthusiasts.
Bundala Biosphere Reserve
Bundala National Park is a wetland site that provides refuge to around 197 species of resident and migratory birds, diverse plant species and various other animals. Aside from birds, you can find elephants, crocodiles, water buffaloes, deers, monkeys, squirrels, dragonflies and a lot more. It is located in Hambantota district, at the southeastern section of Sri Lanka.
Covering an area of 6,216 hectares, the Bundala Biosphere Reserve was declared as a Ramsar site in May 1991 by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. Ramsar Convention is an intergovernmental treaty that seeks to promote conservation of wetlands and their resources through national action and international cooperation.
Why the concern for wetlands? Living beings should be thanking wetlands for nurturing biodiversity, providing habitat for wildlife and migratory birds, flood protection, filtration of pollutants from surface water and providing productive food supply to rivers. It absorbs wastes, that's why wetlands are called the earth's kidney.
The national park is also called Bundala Biosphere Reserve after it has been declared as such by UNESCO in 2005. Based on information from UNESCO, Bundala Biosphere Reserve includes four brackish lagoons, fringed by narrow strips of marshland. Bundala National Park is relatively smaller in area compared with other national parks in Sri Lanka. Even so, the concentration of biodiversity in such a small area makes Bundala National Park Safari a special activity packed with wildlife sightings.
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Bundala National Park Safari Experience
We were up early and ready to go at 5:00 AM from our hotel in Tissamaharama (also known as Tissa) for our Bundala National Park Safari. The park opens at 6:00 AM and we had more than enough time to reach Bundala (~30 to 40 minutes). We brought with us our breakfast in Hello Kitty lunch boxes which our hotel prepared for us upon our request.
We met with Vidupa of Nature Odyssey, our naturalist guide, and Viraj, our safari jeep driver, near the park entrance. We were still on our way to the park’s ticket office when Vidupa already signaled Viraj to stop as he pointed us a common kingfisher. We stopped about 2 or three more times before reaching the official park entrance to view other bird species and a crocodile.
One species of birds we saw on our way to the park entrance
Pretending like a rock is a croc's favorite pastime
At the park gate, we paid our Bundala National Park entrance fee (about 33 USD for 2 persons, including the entrance fee, vehicle fee and government tax, but excluding the jeep and guide). Seeing a sampler of the resident birds and wildlife even before “officially” starting the tour had me all excited. I thought in anticipation that this is going to be a fluttering safari experience.
A magnificent sunrise greeted us at Bundala
The three hours we spent in our Bundala National Park Safari was incredibly thrilling. We had a naturalist who seem to have developed telescopic eyes as he can easily spot and identify birds and animals. I don’t have a good eye and I don’t have binoculars, either. Good thing is that they lent me and my friend one binocular for a closer view and appreciation of how beautiful and colorful the birds are. The bad thing is that I don’t want to put off the magnified view from my eye anymore.
Our guide also had a handy Bird Guidebook to help explain the interesting and unique features of the birds we spotted
Check out related Guide Books from Amazon:
The Birds of Bundala National Park
I certainly can’t remember all the names of bird species and other mammals we saw during the safari. But I can give you some idea how diverse wildlife is in Bundala National Park. I do not have professional telephoto lens but these are the best photos of birds that I could make out of what I have.
A peacock perched on top of a tree. Learned from Vidupa that peacocks also fly up into trees to roost there during the night until early morning.
Wild peacocks are native and prolific in Sri Lanka. I've seen a lot of them in Yala and Central Sri Lanka. Peacock is undoubtedly of national importance in Sri Lanka. In fact, they have traditional Sri Lankan cultural dance imitating peacock movements. Stewardesses of Sri Lankan Airlines also have beautiful turquoise blue peacock uniforms.
Was lucky to see a male peacock spreading his tail feathers
From left to right: Red-wattled lapwing, heron (or egret?), Ceylon woodshrike
The first one's a painted stork, everything else, let's just leave to naturalists haha!
For the first time in my life, I yearned to have that expensive telephoto lens. I hope you find that bird perched on the tree branch.
Love those colorful bee-eaters...just google bee-eater and you'll appreciate what I mean
I wasn’t quick enough to capture purple herons in flight in one of the lagoons, but they are definitely one of the favorite birds I met at the bird park.
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Mammals and Reptiles
Bundala National Park abounds with birds but there are lots of other mammals and reptiles we spotted during the safari tour.
Not lucky with elephants but we did see a male elephant’s footprints (Vidupa says it’s a male one because of the single tracks. According to him, female elephants usually come in herds.)
Three of the five shallow lagoons of Bundala Biosphere Reserve are surprisingly converted into commercial salt production. There is a road between the salt pans which is accessible to jeeps. The salt pans attract thousands of migratory shore birds, including flamingos.
Workers at the salt pan
Getting off the safari jeep is not allowed within the park. However, there was a section of the national park along the coast where visitors can get down and admire the mighty Indian Ocean coast below from a rocky viewpoint.
It was fascinating to learn that almost all species of marine turtles come to this coast to lay their eggs. It would have been great to see sea turtles ashore but the strong waves that day aren’t ideal conditions for breeding.
During this stop, we had the chance to realize we were hungry and eat our packed breakfast. Remember to leave no trash behind at the park.
Team Nature Odyssey/ Walkers Tours
My eyes also feasted on the diverse plant species within the national park. Some of the plant species are endemic while some are also sadly classified as threatened. The dry thorny scrubland and the twisted-branched dry trees dashed our tour with enhanced safari feels.
Unfortunately and alarmingly, our guide informed us that the cactus in the park are introduced species and are now spreading invasively to uncontrollably large proportions. These species prevent the growth of other important plants that animals feed on. Manual uprooting of the invasive cactus was initiated by private companies and individuals. Nevertheless, long term and more holistic plans still need to be implemented.
Ignore for now what that monkey is doing. What I would like to show you are these invasive cacti.
Could Bundala Be One of Your Best National Parks in Sri Lanka?
There are 25 other national parks in Sri Lanka, each with its own unique feature. Hence, considering which is the best national park in Sri Lanka will be a subjective thought. Most visitors skip Bundala in favor of the nearby Yala National Park. The latter’s top draw is the endemic Sri Lankan leopard. We went to Yala the day before our Bundala safari.
We were literally rushed in Yala where our driver raced his way to the location where a leopard is reportedly spotted (through a phone call from another ranger). We got to the spot, which was unbelievably full of jeeps lined up in queue for that chance to see the elusive leopard. Unlike Yala, Bundala National Park is more peaceful. No rush, no jeeps racing along the rough dirt path.
For ardent birders, Bundala will definitely be on top of the best national parks in Sri Lanka. The rich biodiversity, the beautiful colors, watching the birds in flight and listening to unique bird tweets, have the power to convert a non-bird enthusiast into being one. It goes to say that you don’t have to be keen birder to enjoy a Bundala National Park Safari.
Tips and Reminders When Visiting Bundala National Park
Check out some important things you need to know when visiting Bundala National Park, Sri Lanka.
Best Time to Visit Bundala National Park
Flocks of shorebirds arrive in Bundala as their wintering grounds all the way from North India and Siberia. The best time to visit Bundala National Park is September to March, the period during which migratory birds show up. For sea turtle lovers, October to January are best times to visit Bundala’s coast and spot olive ridley, green, leatherback & loggerheads laying their eggs along the shore.
As with other wildlife safari tours, the best time to catch sight of the animals is during early morning and late afternoon, when the birds are most active and frolicking. Elephants are also said to go out in the wetlands to feed and drink during late afternoon.
Bundala is open all year round, so visitors can enjoy the park during both wet and dry seasons. The park opens from 6:00 AM to 6:00 PM.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Do not light a fire. Self-explanatory.
- Do not litter. You may eat meals or snacks or drink tea/ coffee at the stop at the side of the coastline, but do not leave your food or packaging wastes behind.
- Do not feed the animals. If the food is good for humans, it does not follow for animals. Feeding wildlife is prohibited as it may cause them health problems. Likewise, feeding them will cause a change in their natural feeding behaviors, could pose safety risks to both humans and animals and could potentially aid in spreading diseases.
- Do not shout. National parks are not theme parks. Avoid disturbing the animals, just observe them quietly from a distance. Respect wildlife.
- Do not alight the vehicle. This is prohibited inside the park. An exception to this is a specific area along the coast where visitors can get down the jeep, have some meals and view the coast (and watch sea turtles, if you are lucky).
- Bring enough drinking water.
- Bring binoculars, if you have, or ask your tour operator if you they can lend one as part of the tour package.
- Wear light clothes with neutral colors that blend with the environment. Long pants that are lightweight and breathable are ideal for protection against the weather and from insects. I find convertible pants ideal, allowing you to take layers off, as needed. Though you will be inside the safari jeep 99% of the time, lightweight hiking shoes or sturdy sandals are great options. I like to keep my feet covered for protection from impact and dusts.
How to Get There
Bundala National Park can be accessed by land trip from Hambantota or Tissamaharama. If you’re coming from southwest or south of Sri Lanka, you can take bus from Matara or Tangalle or Hambantota to Tissamaharama.
If coming from Central Sri Lanka, you can take direct buses from Kandy or Ella to Tissa by taking those buses bound to Katharagama. Alternatively, you may take a bus bound to Matara or Galle then get off at Thanamalwila, then transfer to bus bound to Tissa.
Because Bundala National Park Safari is best experienced early morning or late afternoon, you will likely need to stay overnight somewhere close before or after your tour. You may choose to stay in hotels in Hambantota, Bundala or Tissa. However, staying in Tissa is more advantageous in terms of location if you also plan to take a Yala Safari Tour.
The park is easily accessible by A2 road from Tissa, Hambantota or Matara (Refer to Google map above).
Read about Public Transport Guide in Sri Lanka here.
Choosing a Tour Company
Having a regrettably unfavorable safari experience at Yala National Park the day before our Bundala trip, I could never stress enough to do your research first and choose a responsible tour company.
Safari is a great way of encountering wildlife in their natural environment. Because you cannot get off the jeep and wander on your own, making the best out of the tour will largely depend on how the tour company handles the safari.
We went with Nature Odyssey, the wildlife and adventures arm of Walkers Tours Ltd., for our Bundala National Park Safari. Yes, the tour was sponsored by them, but I did my research before approaching this company and chose them for the following reasons: they promote ecotourism, they implement carbon emissions reduction program and they employ efforts on waste minimization in delivering their services.
Vidupa and Viraj made a good team, with Viraj driving slowly and Vidupa signaling to stop whenever he spotted animals. We never felt rushed during the tour and learned so much about the different behaviors of birds from our naturalist. His passion for knowledge about wildlife and their protection is very inspiring.
There sure are a lot of safari jeeps waiting for tourists at the A2- Bundala park bound junction, for Bundala National Park, but as I have mentioned, it is important to do your research and choose a responsible company like Nature Odyssey/ Walkers Tours.
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Hotels Near Bundala National Park
We stayed at Nature Resort in Tissamaharama, a good base for both Yala and Bundala trips. If you’re in for some luxury, try the Cinnamon Wild Yala, also in Tissamaharama. Check and compare rates on all top online booking sites with just one click and read reviews here.
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Note: Our Bundala National Park Safari was hosted by Nature Odyssey/ Walkers Tours. All opinions are my own, and no one from this organization reviewed or approved the article.
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