Ruhuna National park or more affectionately known as Yala, has been the most celebrated wildlife park in Sri Lanka for over a century, along with its first self appointed Boer prisoner of war game warden H.E.Engelbrecht, is quiet a story in itself. “Yalagama” as it was known at the turn of the century, was the “Resident sportsman’s” shooting reserve, a wild country reserved for the “Sporting pleasure” of the British residents in Sri Lanka. It is located in a tract of land covering approximately 1260 km2 between Kumbukkan oya & Menik River, and shares its borders with Yala strict nature reserve, Kumana, Kataragama, Katagamuwa and Nimalawa sanctuaries. The climate is semi-arid and dry with scrub jungle unique to this area along with rocky outcrops like kotigala, Jamburagala & Patalungala (Pattangala) strewn about the park, while several fresh and brackish water lagoons dot the park.
Today, only Yala block I, of about 140 km2 in extent, is open for public viewing from 06:00 am to 06:30 pm after which you have to vacate the park, unless you have opted to stay in one of the camp sites or bungalows inside the park. The ideal time to explore this vast nature reserve would be during the break of dawn and the fall of dusk. Yala block II is for the more adventurous as it involves several river crossings and requires a four wheel drive vehicle with all terrain driving capabilities to venture deep inside the wilderness where you’ll encounter less disturbed wildlife but are very shy of noises and will beat a hasty retreat into the shades.
Yala is an ideal place to spot the “big four” of Sri Lankan wildlife, the elephants, the sloth bear, the illusive leopard and the wild buffalo, the unsung denizen of the Yala park, if nothing else dangerous to the extreme. The roaming elephant herds can be easily seen during dry spells in Yala at the small scale reservoirs like Butuwe (derived from the word “Wana Butewa”) and Mahaseelawa while Uraniya is best known for its aquatic avifauna, wild buffalo, mugger or mash crocodile & salt water crocodiles. The black sloth bear is more difficult to spot as it’s more of a solitary animal of nocturnal habits and sightings tend to be a seasonal occurrence.
According to recent studies Yala is said to have the highest concentration (as high as 01/ km2) of the elusive Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera Pardus Kotiya). “The Prince of Dusk”, the apex predator in Sri Lankan national parks and arguably the most versatile of all felines in adaptability on earth perhaps the most famous inhabitant of Yala. The leopards are more elusive and primarily nocturnal in other countries, but are easier to spot in Sri Lanka than any other place in the world due to the lack of any other predators’ presence, to challenge its domain. Should you witness a kill on a leopard safari, quite often the prey is larger than the leopard, which really gives insight into how powerful these animals really are.
The wildlife of the Yala National park is bountiful and often exceptional, with sun basking crocodiles, languor monkeys, roaming herds of spotted deer, wild boar, along with Brahmin kites make it a great Wildlife park to observe animals. The “Salty’s” saltwater crocodilians, and “Mugger” or marsh crocodiles are large and known to be extremely aggressive can be found in the brackish lagoons, while Eagles and kites will entertain you with their food-gathering skills, along with raucous call of the horn-bills and gray languor monkeys make their presence known within the forest. The critically endangered black-necked stork or “Ali Manawa” can also be seen at Yala though very rare as only about 15 individuals or so are remaining according to records while over 200 species of birds recorded in Yala make it a birders paradise.
With everyone concentrating on promoting Yala as a tourist destination it is unclear as to what impacts it will have on the wildlife population of Yala on the long run, one thing is clear though, if we are to preserve this national treasure for future generations we would have to take drastic steps to curb tours inside the park which is a bitter pill for a majority of us, but if we don’t we may not have a park to visit in the years to come.
Note to travelers: Park can be reached by public transport only ( no train services) to Kataragama in about 06 to 07 hours of travel, traveling in the night is easier but advise caution for finding accommodation can be arduous as Sri Lankan’s tend to close by 10pm, Full day or half days Jeep safari’s can be organised at the park gates though best organised through a travel agent to avoid ambiguities, as the drivers tend to take you in circles trying to complete your tour to grab the next tourist waiting at the gate. Park opens at 6.00 am and is closed for the public at 6.30pm and a entrance ticket must be purchased which includes the services of a Sri Lanka wildlife department tracker. DO NOT get off the vehicle unless otherwise directed by the tracker at designated locations.