Yala (යාල) National Park is the most visited national park in Sri Lanka. If you want to watch elephants, leopards, birds, bears, buffaloes, monkeys and crocodiles in one place Yala is the place to go.
Located in the South Eastern edge of the country spreading over 2 provinces, 300km away from the capital Colombo, the park covers 979 sq.km (378 sq. mi). However, only blocks one and five are open for public viewing to preserve wildlife habitats. It’s elevation near the coast is 30m which gradually increases to over 100m as you go inland. Being declared a Wildlife Sanctuary in the 1900 it is one of the first landmarks to be named so.
The entrance to the National Park is in Tissamaharama. The visitor center at Palatupana provides all necessary information for any visitor as well as a locater to all vehicles that enter the sanctuary. The park also provides specially equipped jeeps and guides to ensure the best experience for any wildlife enthusiast.
The best times to visit the Park is dawn and dusk as during day time, due the high temperature, most animals would be hiding in the covered forest areas. Yala is one of the best places in the world to observe leopards in their natural habitat as it has one of the highest leopard densities in the world. Yala is also home to 44 species of mammals including the Sri Lankan Elephant, who’s Yala herd numbers from 300-350. The water buffaloes seen in Yala are indigenous to Sri Lanka along with the sloth bear.
Yala hosts a variety of ecosystems and because of this Yala harbours 215 bird species including 7 endemic species of Sri Lanka. Visiting and migrant birds such as Herons and Egrets has booked Yala to be one of their transit points for many generations. Adjoining Kumana National Sancturay is entirely reserved for birds and is open for visitors too. Out of 47 types of reptiles found within Yala, 6 are endemic. The park is also visited by all 5 of the globally endangered turtles and is home 2 different types of breeding crocodiles as well as 21 types of freshwater fish.
Yala has also been an important area in ancient Sri Lanka specially during the Ruhuna Kingdom as evident by the many ancient tanks seen within the park. Yala is also mentioned in ancient scriptures as the kingdom of the legendary King Ravana in the 3rd millennium BC. Two important pilgrim sites, Sithulpahuwa and Magul Vihara, are situated within the park. To date, Yala is visited by nearly 400,000 pilgrims annually who come specifically to worship these shrines.
Any visitor to Yala National Park can witness colourful birds by the hundreds, elephant herds playing with their young, buffaloes frolicking in the waters and bears and leopards proudly crossing the paths as if to state their claims on their land. Sri Lanka is one if the few remaining countries where wildlife lives alongside population and Yala is one the best places to observe this first hand.