Yala National Park
Yala National Park, situated in the southeast region of Sri Lanka, is the second largest national park in the country, covering 97,878 hectares (979 km²). It is without doubt the best known and most visited protected area in Sri Lanka. The popularity of Yala is not surprising, given its large diversity of animals which includes 32 species of mammals, between 120-130 species of birds and several species of reptiles and amphibians. Mammals include elephants, leopards, sloth bear, spotted deer, sambur, wild boar, water buffalo, grey langur and the golden jackal. Many of these can be easily spotted, although seeing sloth bear requires a good deal of luck during most times of the year. Out of the many bird species, some are more common than others and make for interesting viewing.
These include stalks, egrets, spoonbills, herons, kingfishers, pelicans and ducks that inhabit the park’s many wetlands, and the several species of eagles and owls that can be seen on trees or fishing in Yala’s many ancient irrigation tanks that store much of the fresh water that sustains the animals. Forest birds in Yala include bee-eaters, hoopoe birds, Malabar pied hornbill, jungle fowl, orange breasted green pigeon and Indian peafowl.
The irrigation tanks are also the home of the mugger crocodile which can often be seen warming up on the banks as the sun rises. Other reptiles in Yala include water monitor, estuarine crocodile, star tortoise and several species of snake including the python and Indian cobra. (check) Today, the leopard is a major crowd puller as over the past ten years, Yala has earned an international reputation as one of the hot spots to view this sublimely beautiful animal which is also Sri Lanka’s top predator. Based on recent research and the frequency of sightings, it is believed that Yala has the world’s highest concentration of Leopards.
Yala National Park is the most visited and second largest national park in Sri Lanka, bordering the Indian Ocean. The park consists of five blocks, two of which are now open to the public, and also adjoining parks.
It is however not just the diversity of animals that makes time spent in Yala so rewarding. The habitats that make up the park are equally varied. These include scrub and riverine jungle, open plains, large rock outcrops, two rivers, ancient irrigation tanks, lagoons, sand dunes and beaches. In fact the Indian Ocean forms one of the park’s natural boundaries, making for some spectacular panoramic views of the ocean from the park. Each of these habitats provides a different unique visual experience and offers different compositions of fauna and flora.
This abundance of habitats and the wildlife it supports makes Yala National Park a treasure in Sri Lanka’s rich natural heritage. To many Sri Lankan wildlife enthusiasts, Yala is the King of the parks in the country. But the park also has another less appreciated cultural and historical significance, as it also constitutes part of one of Sri Lanka’s ancient kingdoms – the Ruhunu Kingdom. Evidence of this still exists as archaeological sites located in many parts of the park, although most are not accessible to visitors as they are not allowed to walk inside the park except at a few designated locations. However, the keen-eyed visitor can see the outlines of ancient monasteries and stupas often at the top of the highest rock outcrops. Other visible signs include the occasional line of shallow steps cut into a rock that wind their way to the top. Even in terms of Sri Lanka’s more recent history, Yala is also one of the oldest protected areas having being established in 1938 as one of the first National Parks in Sri Lanka (the first protected areas of any kind in Sri Lanka date back to over 2,000 years to King Asoka’s reign).
Bundala National Park
is approximately a 45 minute drive from Yala National park and 30 minutes from Kirinda Town. With almost 200 species of birds, Bundala National Park was selected as Sri Lanka’s first Wetland of International Importance (or Ramsar Site) by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty to protect wetlands and their biodiversity.
The secret to the park’s bird diversity is the range of ecosystems, from thorny scrub jungle and high coastal dunes to bracking lagoons, salt pans and mudflats.
The 6,000 hectare park comes to life especially between November and April when several species of migrant birds arrive (from Siberia and other parts of Central Asia) including the Great Thick-knee, Blue-tailed Bee-eater, Red Shank, Green Shank, and a small number of Greater Flamingos. Migrants however are not the only ornithological attractions as a good number of rare native waterbirds such as the Black-necked stork Ruddy Crake and Water Cock can be seen with some patience and luck.
In addition to the bird diversity (the main attraction) the park is home to 383 splant species as well as several species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians. The park is perhaps the only location in southern Sri Lanka where you get to observe both species of crocodiles (the Mugger and the Estuarine) existing in the country. The mugger lives mainly in fresh water and is the more common, while the Estuarine specializes in brackish and marine environments.
In 2005 the national park was also designated as a biosphere reserve by UNESCO, the fourth biosphere reserve in Sri Lanka.
This park is much less visited than Yala, so largely avoids the weekend crowds. The drive from Kirinda is a pleasant and picturaque one through villages and paddy fields which provide their own birding opportunities.