Yala’s arid boulder-scattered parklands are dramatically different from the lush jungles and paddy fields that cover so much of the island. Spanning 100,000 hectares of dry thorny scrub and dusty glades, you could easily be in an African bushveldt, right down to the long-thorn bushes. This background was so suited to viewing elephants, leopards, wild boar, spotted deer, crocodiles and jackals that the entrepreneurial South African Englebrecht, who was shipped over as a POW after the Boer War, rightfully instigated it as a sanctuary – Sri Lanka’s first – at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s now the oldest and most prominent of them all.
Yala is famed for having the highest leopard density in the world and the park attracts many visitors for this reason alone. Although there are never any guarantees that you’ll see one of these famously elusive creatures, the chances of seeing one are high, especially if you choose to camp inside the park itself. Certainly, once you catch sight of a male leopard crossing the road at dusk to stalk a sambur deer, phantom-like behind a bush, or sunning themselves nonchalantly atop a rock you know that these unforgettable moments are all for real. Crocs abound, and the bird population at Yala is also profuse; November to January brings out the most unforgettable courting dances of the ostentatious fantail peacocks.
Once part of the ancient kingdom of Ruhuna, Yala was once the land of Queen Viharamahadevi. Cast adrift in the sea as a sacrifice to the gods she fetched up on the Kirinda coast to be saved by king-of-the-time Kavantissa who took her to be his wife. As such, ancient temples, ruins and caves that housed female bikkhus can be found within the sanctuary itself – Sithulpawa is surely the most majestic and inspiring of them all – whilst the pada yathra pilgrim’s route from Batticaloa to holy Kataragama knifes through the park as well. The best time to see most animals is during the cooler hours of dawn and dusk, but you should try to avoid weekends or poya (full moon) holidays as it can get very busy.
An Insider's Perspective
Wildlife celebrity Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne was the first to elevate the leopard in Sri Lanka to an iconic, mainstream tourism product and begin the mantra that Yala National Park is the best place in the world to see and photograph leopards. His name is also synonymous with whale watching in Sri Lanka and The Elephant Gathering. The 15 books he has written and photographed for include ‘Sri Lankan Wildlife’ with Bradt Travel Guides. He believes Yala with Corbett (in India) are amongst the top two national parks in Asia for seeing mammals. He has publicised Sri Lanka as being the best for Big Game Safaris outside Africa and as the Ultimate Island Safari for its combination of Big Game and species richness in a compact area.Why is Yala such a favourite haunt of yours?
The leopards. It is the top site in the world for leopards with an average density in some areas of one leopard per square kilometre, the highest density in the world.What other mammals are there to see?
Yala is also the best place in the world for the Sloth Bear which may well be the largest tropical bear in the world. Bear sightings become easy when the Palu trees are in fruit around May to July. It is possible in a single day to see a host of mammals such as Elephant, Spotted Deer, Sambar, Wild Pig, Black-naped Hare, Giant Squirrel, Palm Squirrel, Toque Monkey, Hanuman Langur, Ruddy Mongoose, Stripe-necked Mongoose, Golden Jackal, etc.What is your favourite activity?
Pulling up at waterhole and letting my spirit run free. My body is my radio and the jungle the music. I tune in and listen to the Hanuman Langurs barking as a leopard approaches the waterhole or the enjoy the melody of the sweet song of the White-rumped Shama. It is amazing how much you see and hear by staying in one place.Top Tip?
To enjoy the park, give yourself at least three game drives, preferably five. You can then enjoy the park for all of its animals and even the wild flowers and the tall Palu Trees ageing with character. Then the Big Spotted One will present itself.