Yala National Park is the most visited and second largest national park in Sri Lanka. Initially, it was a hunting ground for the elite when the country was under British rule. It was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 and a national park in 1938. Yala has a protected area of nearly 130,000 hectares divided in to five blocks two of which are open to the public. 44 species of mammals including the worlds biggest concentration of leopards and 215 bird species are found in the park. The best time to visit Yala is between February and July when the water levels of the park are low, bringing animals into the open.
We got to Yala before gates opened at 6 am. The yard in front of the ticket office was already packed with safari vehicles, all waiting to storm the park as soon as the gate opened. Many, including us, had to do without an official tracker. That makes it important to have a good jeep driver, as ours was, who knows the park well and has a keen eye for birds and animals. No food and drinks are available in the park and you should bring a packed breakfast/lunch and plenty of water. We had sandwiches, bananas and soft drinks from Tissa Lake Hotel.
Following recent rains, the scrub forest looked lush and green and there was plenty of grass and water for ruminants. A lone wild boar was digging up roots and a crocodile was basking on a rock in the middle of a lily pond. Grey Langurs sat and watched us like old men. Leopards however, eluded us.
Yala is a great place for birds, specially in February when migrants arrive. It was disappointing not to spot Indian Pittas, Brahminy Mynas and Rosy Starlings which are often found in the park at this time of the year.
Raptors seen included Changeable Hawk Eagles and a pair of rare Brown Fish Owls.
It was pleasing to see a nesting Black-headed oriole at close quarters.
All three Sri Lankan bee-eaters – Little Green, Blue Tailed and Chestnut-headed, were seen. A pair of nesting Rose-ringed Parakeets were seen on a dead tree. Peacocks were spotted on the ground, up trees and displaying.
As we drove out of the park, we were surprised to see a wild boar on the tarmac, begging for food. “It is a wild animal but it has got used to visitors feeding it” our driver said. Bread and buns were thrown out of the jeeps which the boar happily accepted.. As we drove past him, I couldn’t help thinking that it had a wide grin on its face!