Yala National Park is the second-largest natural reserve in Sri Lanka, and by far, the most visited. It is at Yala that we have the chance to see the famous leopard Panthera pardus kotiya, endemic to Sri Lanka. With its population of 30 to 40 felines, Yala comprises the largest concentration of leopards in the world. The best times to see them are from February to July, in the high dry season, and during dawn and dusk, when the animals gather around the last watering holes.
Yala National Park is situated in the southeastern region of Sri Lanka. A semi-arid region, it receivies 1000 mm of rain during the monsoon period between November to January. From the month of April, many species of migrating birds make the park their home for a few months in order to escape from the winter in the North. A half-day excursion in Yala offers the opportunity to see more than 100 different bird species, including some rare ones such as the Red-faced Malkoha, Blue-faced Malkoha, Tantalum-Indian, Malabar-pied hornbill, Lesser Adjutant (the biggest bird in Sri Lanka), or the very rare Black-necked stork of Asia. The saline zones of Palatupana, located a few kilometres before the entrance of the park, is an equally fascinating place for bird watching.
The park is divided into five blocks, of which only one is open to the public. It includes a section of thorny bush-type vegetation, another of vast dry forest, the savannah area, several rivers, lakes, lagoons, and not to mention the coast which runs along the beaches with cliffs and mangroves. The beaches are a breeding point for the five types of sea turtle species found on the Sri Lankan coasts. Additionally, the cliffs give a spectacular view of the landscape of the park.
The vast disparities in habitats favours an interesting distribution of fauna. There are about 32 species of mammals in the park, among which are the curious sloth bears or the lazy bears (Baloo for friends). The most promising months to come across a lazy bear are June and July. It is in this period that they climb the Rayan or Khirni Tree to eat the fruits as soon as they ripen.
Two species of crocodiles are also visible in Yala: the crocodile of the swamp and the impressive sea crocodile. We also come across many varieties of snakes, one of the most common being the Indian Python, which can reach lengths of up to 3m.
Yala was once part of the ancient Sinhala kingdom of Ruhuna. The quantity of artificial lakes dating back to 5th century B.C., show that Yala was an important agricultural centre nourished by a grand-scale irrigation system. The ancient monastery of Situlpahuwa, which is still an important centre of worship, housed about 12,000 persons, of which several thousand were Buddhist monks.
As great lovers of big game hunting, the notable British settlers occupied Yala as a playground during the colonial period.