Yala National Park is world recognised as one of the premier game parks in the world to observe and photograph leopards and reputedly has the largest population of leopards in the world in the park, although luck plays a large part in seeing or photographing these magnificent but very shy animals.
In our opinion it is a MUST VISIT when in Sri Lanka along with the Pinnawela Elephant Orphanage and Nuwara Eliya in the Highlands.
Much of the reserve is parkland, but it also contains jungle, beaches, freshwater lakes and rivers and scrubland, and also features enormous rocky outcrops. The range of habitats offers sanctuary to a magnificent range of wildlife. The park covers an area of over 100,000 hectares ( 979 kmē) although only the original 141 kmē is open to the public. The Park is divided into five blocks.
Block one is the most visited area since it contains the highest density of leopards. However other areas of Yala such as Yala East had been closed to visitors for some years and it will take time to research leopard numbers in these areas. Yala West consists of scrub jungle, brackish lagoons and stunning rock monoliths scattered throughout the park, with its eastern edge is bounded by the South East coast.
The superb 'Natural World' wildlife documentary was filmed here in 2003 featuring the 'Leopards of Yala', by Gordon Buchanan. Two local leopard experts, Jehan Kumara and Ravi Samarasinha assisted with the research and filming. One of the main findings of the film was that Yala appears to average about thirty leopards within it at any time, probably the highest density anywhere in the world. It is also believed that that the Yala (Sri Lankan) leopards are a distinct sub-species from their Indian neighbours, and the largest leopards in Asia.
Your best chance to spot a leopard is generally on the morning safari (departing at approximately 5am and returning around 9am - in time for a hearty breakfast!) or again at dusk. You can stay until just after dark inside the park, thus maximising your chances of a leopard encounter.
There is also a considerable elephant population in the park along with rare sloth bears, spotted deer, sambar, wild buffalo, jackals, mongoose, pangolins and plenty of crocodiles. Fact: Elephants in Sri Lanka were once upon a time royal property, and it was totally forbidden to kill them. Today there are only probably about 3000 wild elephants left, compared with an estimated 12,000 elephants in 1900.
The bird life is truly magnificent and comprises over 120 species, ranging from Lesser Flamingos to Paradise Flycatchers, Crested Hawk Eagles, and Black Bitterns. Landbirds of course are in abundance, and include Sirkeer Malkoha, Indian Peafowl and Sri Lanka Jungle Fowl. There are also several other fascinating birding locations adjacent to the park including the ancient hermitage of Sithulpahuwa, Debarawewa Wetland and Palatupana Saltpans. The coastline also is a major nesting ground for marine turtles.
The drier season falls between May and August and the park closes for a short time during September and October.
The park was badly damaged by the tsunami of 26th December 2004, with the destruction of the wildlife centre and tourist lodge. Many tourists also died in the disaster, as did park and lodge employees. Interestingly however the locals claim that no animal deaths from the tsunami were found, indicating that animals seem to have sensed the impending disaster and incoming tidal wave and fled to higher ground.
The park is now fully recovered but the lodges destroyed in the disaster have not been rebuilt, and a simple and moving memorial placed on the ruins of the lodges records the disaster.
For a base in the area we recommend the excellent 3-4 star Yala Village Lodge style Hotel for our itineraries that take in Yala National Park. Yala is about 6-7 hours drive from Colombo airport. This popular simple first class hotel is part of the John Keels hotel chain and is ideal for those in search of both adventure and relaxation, due its close proximity to the jungle and the sea.
It has 61 rooms in total, being eco-friendly bungalow style lodges set unobtrusively in the grounds. Of an evening you have your own guide to escort you to and from the main building, as wandering animals (including very large elephants!) often feed within the grounds of the hotel. Comfortable open sided soft top jeeps are used for game spotting safaris inside the park, however you are NOT allowed out of the jeep or even to open the door of your vehicle, as a strict 'look but do not touch' policy is in force for both humans and animals!
We would love to tailor make a safari package for you for Yala or another National Park - we suggest at least 2 nights/ 3 days as a minimum in Yala - giving you 2 early morning trips into the Park - especially to spot that elusive leopard! The afternoons are then spent lazing around the lovely pool, reading, sleeping and just relaxing.
Call us for a safari package costing to add into your Sri Lanka itinerary!