Sri Lanka - Getting to know Yala

Considered by many to the best of Sri Lanka’s National Parks, Yala (or Rahuna, as it is known by Sri Lankans) is famously home to the densest leopard population in the world, but it’s not just about leopards - the park has an astonishing density of wildlife per square mile, including elephants, pangolins, crocodiles, sloth bears and diverse tropical birdlife.

Sri Lanka Yala National Park Travel Guide

Located on the south-eastern coast of Sri Lanka, and split into five blocks (two of which - Yala East and Yala West - are open to the public), the National Park covers an area of around 378 square miles, with habitats ranging from dense jungle to grasslands, lakes, wetlands, flat plains, rocky outcrops and sandy beaches. 

54 square miles of this can be explored by visitors, with the remainder designated as Strict Natural Reserve. Yala’s most famous inhabitant, as well as its keystone species, is the Sri Lankan Leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya). These impressive creatures can be seen throughout the year, although the best period for spotting them is Jan-Jul. A distinct subspecies from their Indian neighbours, the leopards are at the top of Yala's food chain, and can afford to be far more visible than in other parts of the world, where they act more cautiously due to the threat of other mammals. 

Rhesus monkeys, langurs, Asian elephants, sloth bears, jungle cats, pangolins, mongoose and buffalo feature amongst the other animals found in Yala, alongside avian stars like the hoopoe, bee-eater, spoonbill. and plenty of parrots.

Alternatives to Yala

  • A short drive west along the coast from Yala lies a much smaller, wetter National Park - it’s called Bundala, and if you’re a birdwatcher, this is the place to come. Around 100 species of waterbird can be seen here, including large flocks of Greater Flamingo between September and March. Year-round residents include Black-headed Storks and the Oriental White Ibis, and four marine turtle species come ashore each year to lay eggs on Bundala’s shoreline. The park benefits from low (human) visitor numbers compared to its famous neighbours. 
  • Asian elephants use nearby Lunugamvehera National Park as a corridor between Yala and Uda Walawe National Park. Because of this, the size of Yala’s elephant population varies greatly from one year to the next, with the dry season between May and August being the peak time to see elephants. If your trip to Sri Lanka is likely to feel incomplete if you don’t see wild elephants, Yala might not be the place for you. Uda Walawe, on the other hand, almost guarantees elephant sightings, with a population of around 500 animals, and the Elephant Transit Home, which cares for orphaned elephants. It’s west of Yala, and further inland.

What to do in Yala National Park

  • It’s all about wildlife safaris. Dusk and dawn are the best times to do it, with comfortable temperatures and soft light being just right for creatures to travel, socialise and find food. 
  • Go to the beach! Yala National Park is right on the coast, with some of Sri Lanka’s finest beaches within easy reach. There’s nothing quite like a relaxing on the sand between safaris, and some of our favourite hotels are close to the beach, too - try Chena Huts, which overlooks a beach where sea turtles nest, and Yala’s elephants paddle in the shallows.

Where to stay in Yala

Yala is Sri Lanka's second biggest and most visited National Park, so stay as close to the park gates as possible. There’s a bit of a scramble to get into the park for the dawn safari, but once inside the jeeps spread out. For the ultimate safari experience you can camp in style on the outskirts of the National Park in Mahoora’s Tented Safari Camp. This is not your common-or-garden tented experience - you can expect attentive, five star service and well-equipped tents that feature comfortable beds and an en-suite bathroom complete with hot-water shower and a flushing toilet. 

Sri Lanka’s conservation is no fad: Yala was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900

Weather in Yala National Park

Being located in one of the more arid regions of Sri Lanka, conditions at Yala are mostly hot and dry, although rainfall is expected from November to January (north-east monsoon) and during March and April (inter-monsoon).

February is the driest month, although the main dry season actually runs from June to October. The mean annual temperature is 27 °C, although in the dry season the temperature could go as high as 37 °C.

January to March is best, but you can visit throughout the year. Just be aware that, during very dry years, park officials prefer to encourage wildlife breeding without the distraction and confusion caused by motor vehicles.