Sri Lanka Ethical Tourism: How to Enjoy Responsible Animal Watching in Sri Lanka

The island of Sri Lanka, just south of India, is by many considered a paradise: UNESCO Heritage sites, idyllic beaches, lush forests, and friendly people make it for an unforgettable holiday destination.

Sri Lanka is also a biodiversity hotspot. Lovers of nature from all around the world get their Sri Lankan ETA for a chance to see elephants, monkeys, leopards, dolphins, and countless more animal species.

However, captive animals used as tourist attractions (most famously, elephants) represent an unethical and often cruel practice. Fortunately, international tourism is now becoming more aware of the issue and moving towards a more responsible approach.

To ensure you have an ethical wildlife experience in Sri Lanka, try the following steps:


  • Observe animals in the wild and avoid self-advertised ‘sanctuaries’.
  • Keep a distance: close contact with tourists is stressful for animals.
  • Do your research before visiting establishments to avoid supporting cruel practices.


Where Can You See Animals in Sri Lanka?

As Sri Lanka is a treasure in terms of biodiversity, there are plenty of occasions for visitors to observe nature at its best and even spot some of the rarest animals. Animals can be seen in many ways:


  • National parks. The best natural parks in Sri Lanka are protected wilderness areas that allow visitors to watch animals like elephants, monkeys, and leopards from a distance. Ethical wildlife tours support animal welfare and the local community. You can decide to spend the day in the Sri Lanka national park of your choice or even have a safari that lasts several days and includes accommodation.
  • Boat tours. The Southern coast is famous for whale watching. Booking an ethical, small boat tour will give you the best chance of a responsible up-close encounter and memorable pictures to show at home. Among the cetaceous that you can spot in Sri Lanka are several species of dolphins, blue whales, fin whales, and sperm whales.
  • Ethical animal sanctuaries. It’s always best to observe animals in the wild. However, some establishments (especially orphanages and veterinary centers of some ethical natural reserves) allow visitors to get closer to the animals without causing them stress. It’s important that you research the sanctuaries thoroughly before traveling, as many advertise themselves as ethical but still have cruel practices in place.


Ethical Elephant Establishments in Sri Lanka

When it comes to choosing an elephant national park in Sri Lanka, tourists are spoiled with choices. Elephants are the national symbol of Sri Lanka but are also the species that is most at risk when it comes to animal cruelty and unethical practices.

Elephants have long been used as a lucrative tourist attraction. You may have seen pictures of tourists riding and bathing elephants in Sri Lankan sanctuaries during their holidays. These are almost always stressful experiences for the animals in captivity.

The one below is a list of ethical animal parks and sanctuaries in Sri Lanka, where you can observe the animals (elephants and others) in the wild and / or get a closer look without compromising their welfare:

  • Yala national park Sri Lanka. Best explored on one of the many safaris organized by the park, this wilderness area is home to not only elephants but also deer, monkeys, crocodiles, peacocks and even leopards (best spot on an early morning tour). You can stay half a day or overnight.
  • Wasgamuwa national park Sri Lanka. A strict natural reserve, this park is ideal to watch herds of elephants (the current number of elephants in the park is 150).
  • Lunugamvehera national park Sri Lanka. This area is considered a corridor for elephants who migrate between Yala and Udawalawe national parks. Other animals living in the park include water buffaloes, grizzled giant squirrels, crocodiles, and more.
  • Udawalawe national park Sri Lanka. Orphaned and abandoned elephant babies are rescued and taken care of until they’re ready to return to the park. You can also visit a turtles sanctuary.
  • Temple of the Tooth (Kandy). Fully funded and managed by the temple, the elephant center rescues wounded and ill animals to then refer them for better care to other centers when necessary.

How to Have Ethical Animal Encounters in Sri Lanka

Making ethical choices while on holiday helps preserve the environment and ensure that the Sri Lankan biodiversity is not affected by mass tourism. By refusing to support unethical establishments financially, you will encourage keepers around the country to implement safer and healthier practices for the animals.

There are simple steps that tourists can take to ensure a responsible animal watching experience and cruelty-free Sri Lankan holiday:


  • Watch animals in the wild. Elephants and other Sri Lankan animals are meant to live in the wild. Captivity should be kept to a minimum and remain temporary (for example, when animals are seriously wounded and can’t survive in the wild). By visiting protected areas, you will encourage local communities to invest in animal welfare.
  • Talk to jeep riders. Safaris can be unethical too. If you see the driver get too close to the animals (this is done to allow tourists to take closer pictures), tell them that you’d rather keep a distance. Animals can get very nervous and feel in danger when vehicles get very close. The same approach can be applied to boat tours.
  • Limit visits to sanctuaries and never ride elephants. The real sanctuaries will limit contact with tourists as much as possible, allowing visitors to watch the elephants and other animals only from a distance.
  • Do your research. Always research the Sri Lankan animal establishments you intend to visit. This is the only way to find out what goes on when the tourists aren’t looking and you will be able to boycott bad operators and put them out of business. Booking only responsible animal encounters should be a fundamental part of your holiday planning, just like figuring out your itinerary and applying for your visa for Sri Lanka.


How to Recognize an Unethical Animal Sanctuary

While you read reviews and watch videos of the sanctuary you intend to visit online, there are clear signs of animal cruelty you can watch out for. If the establishment uses sticks, bull-hooks, and chains, they are not a sanctuary but rather an unethical establishment — no matter how they call themselves.

Elephants need plenty of space, water, food, and shade. If the captive animals seem to lack any of the above, you’re probably looking at an unethical company.

Elephants should be able to live similarly to what they’d do in the wild as much as possible. Avoid establishments advertising shows and unnatural behaviors like tricks, painting, soccer, and bathing with tourists.

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