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Around 20km southeast of Tissamaharama lies the entrance to Yala National Park (properly known as Yala West or Ruhuna National Park), Sri Lanka’s most visited and most rewarding wildlife reserve. Yala covers an area of 1260 square kilometers, 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 jeep.

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 these 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 colorful painted 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.

Wildlife In Yala

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 touristic 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 bird watching 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.