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A Water Buffalo Peeks Its Head Above The Water - Yala National Park, Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: Yala National Park

Yala National Park is a large wildlife conservation area found in the south-east of Sri Lanka bordering the beautiful Indian Ocean.

Divided into 5 blocks, the park has a protected area of nearly 130,000 hectares of land consisting of light forests, scrubs, grasslands, tanks and lagoons. Two blocks are currently opened to the public.

Yala was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and was designated a national park in 1938. Ironically, the park was initially used as a hunting ground for the elite under British rule. Yala is home to 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species. Among its more famous residents are the world’s biggest concentration of leopards, elephants, sloth bears, sambars, jackals, spotted dear, peacocks, and crocodiles. 

The Safari Tours

We do love safari tours. For us, it is as much about the experience as it is about spotting wildlife. In India, we did 3 tiger safaris and did not see one tiger but we still loved it! 

Our Yala safari was fun. A lot of time is spent meandering around the park looking at the more common beasts, such as water buffalo, antelopes, peacocks etc and then there will be a call and suddenly you are off on the trail of a rarer animal. Yala is also renowned for its birdlife.

A water buffalo peeks its head above the water
A pair of water buffalo wallow in a muddy pond - Yala National Park
Elephant Rock
A dried up lake with waterfowl
Wild Boar
A crocodile basking in the sun at Yala National Park
A wading crane
A colourful bee-eater bird hanging around on a rock
A dangerous place to hang-out with the crazy safari jeep drivers around
A sacred ibis in the verdant vegetaion of Yala National Park
The Sri Lankan Jungle Fowl - the National Bird of Sri Lanka

As there was a lot of water around we didn’t get to see any elephants who were off enjoying themselves in drier places – but we hadn’t come to Yala to see the elephants. The main draw to Yala is the leopards; there are believed to be 75 in zone one of the Park. 

We joined a multitude of assorted jeeps and all-terrain vehicles in an area close to an inlet from the ocean – a beautiful spot – to watch a leopard who we resting up in the branches of a tree. The leopard was quite distant but it was nonetheless exciting to spot one of these in the wild as they tend to be quite bashful.

The rear end of a leopard!
Leopard hanging out in a tree in Yala National Park

In summary …

If you are in Sri Lanka you absolutely must do a Yala safari. As with all safaris be prepared to be out in the sun for several hours:

  1. Wear a hat
  2. Put on plenty of sunscreen (factor 30 and above)
  3. Take plenty of water
  4. Don’t forget your camera or phone!

Planning your visit

It is possible to enter the park with your own vehicle, but the roads are not paved and from our experience, they can be very bumpy and if it has been raining there could be some deep puddles. So, a 4WD vehicle is recommended.

Most of us visiting the park won’t have a handy 4WD vehicle so we will want to join one of the many safari drives that take place every day – they are plentiful but it is worth booking ahead.

If you book a safari tour they can arrange to be picked up from anywhere in the  Tissamaharama area.

Location:Palatupana, Yala, Sri Lanka

Park Entry: Adult $15, Children $8

Safari Tours: 1/2 Day; $35 – Full Day; $60

Hours:Daily 6AM–6PM

Best time to visit Yala

The best time to visit Yala is between February and July when the water levels of the park are lower, which brings the animals into the open. We visited around Christmas time in December towards the end of the rainy season and there was a lot of water around which kept the elephants at bay and also meant the leopards we holed up in the trees. That said we still had a wonderful time, and it was fun splashing through the puddles in our 4WD vehicle.

Where to stay?

Most people will stay in or around Tissamaharama where there are plenty of hotels to choose from.

If you want something a little different you can stay in the park at one of the bungalows or at one of the luxury campsites (this is glamping not roughing it!), an example of a campsite is Leopard Trails.


If you are travelling in a larger group then one of the bungalows inside the National Park might be a great option. They offer varied accommodations at 4 different locations inside the park. You are allowed to book 3 days consecutively. The lodges provide accommodation for groups of 10 or more depending on the situation.


If you prefer to be separated from the nature of Yala National Park by the thickness of canvas then Leopard Trails might be a good option for you. 

This is not your regular camping experience – Leopard trails is more of a luxury glamping experience. The tents are large and including flushing toilets, showers, sinks and even airconditioning. 


If you are looking for somewhere very unique to stay then look no further than the Kumbuk River Hotel. Here you can stay inside a villa shaped like an elephant, or a tree house or if you prefer a cabin on the back of a vintage truck. Sounds fun eh!

The hotel has a coffee shop and caters for its guests with traditional Sri Lankan food.

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