Around 20km southeast of Tissamaharama lies the entrance to Yala National Park (properly known as Yala West or Ruhunu National Park), Sri Lanka’s most visited and most rewarding wildlife reserve. Yala covers an area of 1260 square kilometres, although four-fifths of this is designated a Strict Natural Reserve and closed to visitors. On the far side of the Strict Natural Reserve is Yala East National Park, which is only accessible via Arugam Bay. There’s no public transport to Yala, and you’re only allowed into the park in a vehicle, so you’ll have to hire a driver or take part in a tour.
The park’s dry-zone landscape is impressively wild and unspoilt, especially when viewed from the vantage points offered by the curious rock outcrops which dot the park. From there you can look out over a seemingly endless expanse of low scrub and trees dotted with brackish lakes next to the dune-covered coastline – particularly magical from Situlpahuwa. In addition, the park’s wildlife has its own distinctive charm, with huddles of colourful storks perched on the edge of lagoons between the supine shapes of dozing crocodiles; fan-tailed peacocks kicking up clouds of dust while monkeys chatter in the treetops; or the incongruously conjoined sight of elephants marching sedately through the bush while rabbits scamper through the undergrowth.
Yala National Park is the second largest national park in Sri Lanka and has much to offer. Unlike other National Parks, Yala can only be accessed by vehicle and set roads must be followed. You can hire a driver to take you through the park, however, it is always worth paying a little extra for a local guide as the drivers speak little English and do not have the knowledge and experience of the park that the guides can offer you. This way, you can ask questions and learn about the animals.
There is no best time to visit Yala National Park, as the wildlife is always there and thriving. During the dry season (February to June) the entrance is slightly more expensive due to peak season, but this is a very small difference and perhaps worth it to avoid the rain. In most recent years the park has closed for the entire month of September for maintenance, be sure to check if Yala is open on the official website when travelling during this time.
It is recommended to visit the park as early as possible. The park officially opens at 6 am however often your guides will advise going earlier and being at the gates around 5 am to 5.30am. It may seem extreme, but if you are one of the first jeeps into the park you see all the animals waking up and lying openly in the road or sideroads, whereas once the jeeps starting rolling in they start to move into the more hidden areas to avoid the sun and noise.
If your main goal of visiting the park is to get some rare animal sightings, then it is recommended to stay near the park in suitable accommodation for one to three nights so you are able to take safari tours 3-4 times to experience various sightings and gain valuable experiences. Many of the hotels provide guides and tours for you or have good connections with companies that will offer you just this.
When many people think of Sri Lanka, they often do not think of Safaris. It is this common judgement that makes a safari at Yala National Park something not to miss. As with other typical safari destinations, Yala can offer a range of animals with a far lesser crowd. You can expect to see Elephants, crocodiles and leopards roaming around, and if you are lucky you may even see a live kill. The birds at Yala, and in Sri Lanka in general, are somewhat of a speciality. With a range of different species making frequent appearances, such as Crested Serpent Eagles and peacocks.
The elephants at Yala National Park provide a unique experience whilst not being exploited. Many elephant 'sanctuaries' in Sri Lanka and South East Asia in general often brand themselves as safe places for the beautiful creatures but almost always provide quite the opposite. It is common for these places to breed elephants for captivity with no intentions of releasing them into the wild, but more so for the attention of tourists. Some chain elephants to the rocks in order to provide tourists with a good photo shot or train them in order to give rides, do not be this person. It is always best to see them in their natural habitat unless your sources are top-notch.
There are a few important things to make your experience at Yala National Park as memorable as possible, for the right reasons. There are no toilets in the park, as it is a nature reserve and there are few places where jeeps are legally able to stop should you urgently need the bathroom. As you will be in the jeep the whole time, you will be moving very little, staying hydrated is important but do not overdo it! Also, remember sunscreen. The jeeps are covered but during midday, the sun finds creepy ways to work itself into the jeep. A jumper is also useful should you be starting your safari early, as it can be quite chilly before the sun makes an appearance.
A good camera is always good for travel in general, however, if you are lacking the fancy lenses and want to capture the scenery and animals then do not worry as many of the hotels hire out camera equipment for the safaris, or will have good connections to other hotels that can provide this service for you.
Yala’s most famous residents are its leopards – the park boasts a higher concentration of these elusive felines than anywhere else in the world (block 1 of the park, the only section currently open to visitors, is thought to be home to around 60–70 animals) and sightings are reasonably common, though you’ll stand a much better chance if you spend a full day in the park, which allows you to reach less touristed areas. Leopards can be seen year round, though they might be slightly easier to spot during the latter part of the dry season, when the ground vegetation dies back. Adult leopards are mainly active from dusk until dawn. Most daytime leopard sightings are of cubs and sub-adults, who are dependent on their mother for food. These confident and carefree young animals can provide hours of viewing, often showing themselves to visitors in the same spot for several days running. Much more visible are the resident elephants, which can usually be seen on most trips, though they can be a bit easier to spot during the dry season (May–Aug), when they congregate around the park’s waterholes. Other resident mammals include sambar and spotted deer, wild boar, wild buffaloes, macaque and langur monkeys, sloth bears, jackals, mongooses, pangolins, porcupines, rabbits and (rare) wild cats, as well as plentiful crocodiles.
Yala also offers outstanding birdwatching year round, although from October to March visitors have the added bonus of seeing thousands of migratory species arrive to escape the northern winter. Around 130 species have been recorded here. Peacocks are ubiquitous throughout the park, while you should also spot at least a couple of jungle fowl, a singularly inelegant, waddling creature, like a feral hen, which has been adopted as the national bird of Sri Lanka.
Featured Image: Elephant in Yala National Park © Thomas Wyness / Shutterstock