Sprawled over 979 square kilometres, Yala National Park in southeast Sri Lanka is the nation’s largest and most-visited wildlife conservation zone. As Lanka’s oldest wildlife sanctuary, Yala shelters a vast area of unspoilt jungles, grassland and lagoons bordering the Indian Ocean, home to the highest population of leopards on the planet, alongside Sri Lankan elephants, crocodiles, and over 400 bird species.
Yala National Park is sectioned into five blocks, and there are eco-friendly campsites all over. By paying an admission fee of USD 15, you can enter through one of the four gates: Katagamuwa, Palatupana, Kataragama Road, and Galge. The fascinating thing about hiking here is discovering the park’s diverse terrain, ranging from marine wetlands, deciduous and thorn forests, freshwater lakes and ponds, mainly composed of Precambrian-era metamorphic rocks.
A large section of the park is covered by marshes and sandy beaches, where families enjoy picnics and swimming. Further inland, Sithulpawwa is an ancient Buddhist monastery where caves display centuries-old rock paintings. Magul Vihara is another pilgrimage site displaying ancient ruins within the park. The best way to enjoy a Yala National Park tour is to take Jeep safaris with a driver, but you can blaze your own trails with bicycles.
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Yala National Park is home to the largest number of leopards in the world. The park is also home to many elephants and deers that freely roam about in the vicinity of tourists. It is easy to spot them amidst your safari or any other tour. You might even witness the Sri Lankan Sloth bear in its natural habitat if you are lucky.
When it comes to birds, the national park has over 215 species. With a mix of migrating birds, endemic birds, and national park-bred birds, this national park is filled with various colourful and different species of birds. For this reason, Yala National Park is considered to be one of the 70 most Important Bird Areas (IBA) in the world.
In the list of reptiles are a wide variety of snakes (including water snakes) and lizards which are endemic. Yala National park is also very important because it aims to preserve freshwater aquatic life. There are more than 20 types of fish bred here. Crabs and prawns are also seen frequently here.
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The vast land area of Yala National Park, being home to such a massive number of plants, animals, and birds, also supports several ecosystems on its own. The ecosystems vary over a number of types because the national park is a culmination of different types of lands and water bodies.
Including dry and wet monsoon forests, the national park also has marine wetlands, deciduous forests and thorny forests and even sandy beaches. The trees are, thus, from a variety of species like mangroves and others that support the endemic species of the forests. The Yala National Park has been divided into four blocks - all consisting of different species of plants, trees, and vegetation. Some of these blocks are out of bounds for the common public, while others remain open for safari tours.