Yala (Ruhuna) National Park
Yala (Ruhuna) National Park’s huge elephants, strutting peacocks, magnificent leopards and others uniquely here have made it known as a premier wildlife reserve of the world.
In an idyllic location on the southeast coast where whales and dolphins sound offshore, endangered dugongs, like seagoing underwater elephants, ease along the shallows, and sea turtles nest on beaches, it offers habitat from high coastal sand dunes and mangrove wetlands to grassy savannahs and dense interior forests.
Armored pangolins snuffle about forest litter. Sambar and spotted (axis or chital) deer drink along the Menik River, along with Sri Lankan jackals and huge water buffalo. All give way to sloth bears which, though primarily vegetarian, are feared for their strength and touchy dispositions, especially when carrying cubs and foraging for palu fruits.
Scurrying small rodents are prey for tiny endemic rusty-spotted cats and golden palm civets, catlike carnivores named for a preference for palm trees. Both often forage at night as do tiny, huge-eyed insect-hunting slender loris whose urine-soaked paws leave territorial scent marks everyplace.
Pretty little toque monkeys vault through tall trees, joined by silver-gray langurs. Both scream alarms when they spot their top predator, a leopard, in the jungle or when these spotted cats lounge atop Vepandeniya or “Leopard Rock,” as they often do.
Resplendent peacocks ringingly proclaim territory, danger, courtship—almost anything— fanning out iridescent six-foot (2-m) tails in one of the grandest displays in nature.
Yala’s more than 140 bird species include stunning Loten’s sunbirds, Brahminy kites, openbilled storks, paradise flycatchers, rose-ringed parakeets, and one of the world’s great singers, Sri Lankan shamas. Redshanks, greenshanks, long-toed stints, and long-distance-migrant golden plovers (logging an annual 20,000 miles/32,000 km) winter in wetlands where thousands of spoonbills, Goliath herons, black-necked storks, and others nest.
Yala is famous for its elephants, visible after spring rains start new green growth. Herds of 25 or more bathe and frolic at Palatupana “tank”—mostly peaceful but watch for males with a teary discharge. They are in periodic “musth” which irritates them so they can charge to kill (and run faster than a human).
Some of these were transplanted from a sugarcane plantation built on 16 square miles (41 km2) of cleared forest blocking traditional migration paths and water sources. Seventy-five persons and at least 125 elephants died before hitting on an imaginative solution: coax the elephants 15 miles (24 km) to this 490-square-mile (1,268-km2) reserve where they are now.
Climate is usually hot, dry, with monsoons November–January. Park is closed August–October. In July pilgrims walk across to a festival at Kataragama—interesting to see but dangerous to both humans and wildlife (a famous man-eating leopard once killed a number of pilgrims).
Lodging is usually available in on-park campsites, bungalows, plus nearby hotels, rest houses. Yala is 185 miles (298 km) on good roads from Colombo; 4WD can be good idea inside park (must be accompanied by ranger). Threats include poaching; timbering; cattle grazing; human–elephant agricultural conflicts; also civil unrest (check ahead).
Yala East is a 70-square-mile (180-km2) park extension with elephants, bears, leopards, sometimes spectacular birdlife, especially in and near Kumana mangrove swamp in June–July nesting period (watch for red-faced malkohas, blue magpies). Boat rentals available. Access by 16-mile (25- km) 4WD road from Arugam Bay.