Yala National Park is divided into five blocks, with the most visited being Block I (141 sq km). Also known as Yala West, this zone was originally a reserve for hunters, but was given over to conservation in 1938. It’s the closest to Tissa. The entrance fees are payable at the main office, which is near the west entrance. The only practical way to visit the park is on a tour or safari.
With over 20 leopards thought to be present in Block I alone, Yala is considered one of the world’s best parks for spotting these big cats. Panthera pardus kotiya, the subspecies you may well see, is unique to Sri Lanka. The best time to spot leopards is February to June or July, when the water levels in the park are low.
The park’s estimated 300 elephants can be more elusive, although some regularly appear in the most visited areas. Other animals of note include the shaggy-coated sloth bear and fox-like jackals. Sambars, spotted deer, boars, buffaloes, mongooses and monkeys are also here, along with startlingly large crocodiles.
Over 200 species of birds have been recorded at Yala, many of which are visitors escaping the northern winter, such as white-winged black terns, curlews and pintails. Locals include jungle fowl, hornbills, orioles, and peacocks by the bucket load.
Despite the large quantity of wildlife, the light forest can make spotting animals quite hard; however, small grassy clearings and lots of waterholes offer good opportunities. The end of the dry season (March to April) is the best time to visit, as during and shortly after the rains the animals disperse over a wide area.
As well as herds of wildlife, Yala contains the remains of a once-thriving human community. A monastic settlement, Situlpahuwa, appears to have housed 12,000 inhabitants. Now restored, it’s an important pilgrimage site. A 1st-century BC vihara (Buddhist complex), Magul Maha Vihara, and a 2nd-century BC chetiya (Buddhist shrine), Akasa Chetiya, point to a well-established community, believed to have been part of the ancient Ruhunu kingdom.
Yala is a very popular park: there were over 400,000 visitors in 2016, a number which has quadrupled since 2009. At times jeeps can mimic a pack of jackals in their pursuit of wildlife. It’s a good idea to discuss with your driver and/or guide where you can go to get away from the human herd. Be sure, however, to make time for the park’s visitor centre at the western entrance. It has excellent displays about Yala and a good bookshop.