I've always wanted to do a safari in Sri Lanka and when Vincent and I finally decided to make a trip there together, it was on the top of our list of things to do. Despite being such a small country, Sri Lanka actually has 26 national parks (in addition to a wide range of nature reserves and sanctuaries) and is actually considered to be one of the best places in Asia for seeing wildlife. Elephants, crocodiles, primates, birds, leopards...you name it, Sri Lanka has got it! It's also becoming known for being the place to go and see the largest animal to have ever lived on the planet: the blue whale.
With so many national parks and so little time (we had about two and a half weeks to explore the country which was nowhere near long enough), we decided to do a couple of safaris in Yala. Here's our very honest list of the pros and cons of visiting Yala National Park and why we think it's a place that you should definitely put on your itinerary.
A Bit of Background Info on Yala
Yala is Sri Lanka's most visited national park and was designated a wildlife sanctuary in 1900. The park was initially used as a hunting ground for the elite under British rule (I think the less said about this the better - yuck). Today, Yala is divided into five blocks and covers an area of nearly 130,000 hectares of land.
Most safaris take place in Block 1 and 2, but as these areas have started to become more popular with tourists and therefore more congested (you can read more about that below), tourists who wish to have a quieter and more isolated safari experience have started visiting the other blocks too (this needs to be booked in advance with a safari company).
From what we've read, your chances of spotting wildlife (including leopards) in Blocks 3 & 5 are pretty decent. This is because Yala is a place literally teeming with animals: it has 44 varieties of mammal and 215 bird species. The recommended time to visit Yala is between February and July, when low water levels bring animals out into the open. Having said that, we visited in December and saw a lot of animals too!
Starting Off On A Positive Note - The Pros
One of Yala's major claims to fame is that it has the highest population density of leopards in the world. The most popular block for safaris is Block 1 which is apparently home to around 40 leopards. So basically the chances of you seeing a leopard is pretty high, though of course not guaranteed - seeing as they are elusive wild animals and all.
We did three separate safaris in Yala (an evening safari; a full day; and a special leopard spotting safari) and we were lucky enough to spot leopards every single day - on one day we even saw two together! This is why we'd recommend visiting Yala more than once if possible, as this massively increases your chances of seeing leopards and other animals. Again, manage your expectations - all of our leopard sightings were from a distance, although other people have had better luck with a leopard walking right past their jeep. Still, it was pretty cool to see this animal in the wild!
No Leopard? No Problem! You're Pretty Much Guaranteed to See Other Animals
It's worth remembering that your safari shouldn't just be all about the leopards - you will see so many other amazing animals in Yala and they deserve your attention too! As well as leopards, the park is home to huge populations of elephants as well as sloth bears, sambar and spotted deer, buffalo, warthog, monkeys, peacocks, mongoose, crocodiles, lizards and many other wild animals. So if you're disappointed about not seeing a leopard, trust us when we say that feeling won't last very long.
We've been on safari in Zambia and Botswana before and whilst it was amazing, at between $80 to $160 per person it definitely wasn't cheap. Which is why we were completely surprised by the safari costs at Yala.
After reading some good reviews on Trip Advisor, we arranged our safari through Janaka Safaris. Our evening safari cost $40 per person and our full-day and '5am-12pm' leopard safari cost $57 and $36 per person respectively. The cost included the park entrance fee, which is between 3000LKR/$19 - 3500LKR/$22 per person (the park fees change frequently); the guide/driver; fruits and water; binoculars and of course, the 4WD jeep transport.
There are operators who charge more or less than this - our advice is to shop around and read reviews until you find a company that you are happy with and that works for your budget.
Stunning Scenery and Landscapes
Sure you're here for the animals, but it doesn't hurt that the whole place is pretty beautiful either. Yala packs in a variety of different environments into a relatively small space so when you are on safari you will see deciduous forests, scrub and grasslands as well as wetlands, lagoons and even sandy coastlines.These varied landscapes are the reason that a wide range of animals have been able to thrive in Yala. And they also make for some beautiful photos! Having only gone on safari in landlocked countries in Africa, it was also strange for us to visit a national park that borders an ocean - very cool.
You Can Easily Combine Your Visit With Some Beach Life or Visiting Other Nearby Areas
A safari at Yala usually means an early start (usually beginning at 4.30/5am) as many of the safari jeeps arrive early and queue to buy tickets so that their passengers can be the first to enter the park. Whilst being sleep deprived and groggy might not be such an attractive prospect (and might have you saying that this should be in the 'cons' section) what it does mean is that you will be finished by 12pm at the latest, leaving you time to travel to your next destination.
Beach towns such as Tangalle, Hikkaduwa, Mirissa, Unawatuna are between 2-5 hours drive away and so you can be sipping a sunset cocktail on the beach in no time. Alternatively, we used the time to explore the historic city of Tissamaharama where we were staying and on one of our free evenings watched thousands of fruit bats fly off at sundown in search of food. It was beautiful and cost nothing!
And Now For Some Bad News - The Cons
Crazy Driving and Some Bad Behaviour
When you decide to go on a safari, it's a given that it will include a pretty bumpy ride along dusty dirt roads. This, I totally understand. What I didn't expect was some of our drivers going full pedal-to-the-metal on these uneven roads and dangerously overtaking other drivers in their rush to get us a sighting of a leopard. Yes, we'd be really keen to see one, but we also don't want it to be the last thing we ever see.
Although most of our guides/drivers from Janaka Safaris were very good, we did have one chain-smoking, betel-chewing guy who drove everywhere at top speed, called a woman the C-word on the phone and had a massive argument with another driver (with more swearing) when he drove us somewhere where he was told there would be leopards and it turned out to 'only be elephants'.
Granted, the only reason I understood some of this was because I speak the local language, but it also wasn't a pleasant experience for the other guests on our tour (one of whom was pregnant) and who thought they were just being driven around by a crazy, angry man. The driver did eventually apologise to us (when he was told by a colleague that one person on the tour could understand him) but the damage was done. On that day we felt that we'd signed up for a safari but somehow ended up in a Sri Lankan tele-drama instead!
Overcrowding and Too Many Jeeps
With Yala being Sri Lanka's most popular national park, it gets a large number of local and international tourists. It's therefore rare that on a safari in Block 1 or 2 that you will experience an animal sighting without anyone else there.
Most of the tour guides in Yala communicate with each other via mobile phone and when one sees a leopard or another animal he calls up the others and everyone rushes to the same spot. This results in queues of jeeps, all revving their engines and jostling against each other, as each tour operator tries to give their customers the best sighting of the animal.
Obviously, none of this is great for the animals either: I've read some accounts where drivers have even pulled up really close to a leopard in a tree and agitated the poor animal to such an extent that it has no choice but to leave its resting place and move somewhere else. For us, this isn't worth it - we would prioritise the welfare of the animal over any photo opportunity and we were glad that the drivers at Janaka Safari were conscientious in this regard.
So What Would We Say?
Yala's ecological diversity makes it well worth a visit on your trip to Sri Lanka, even if you don't get to see a leopard. It is more crowded than other national parks in the country, so if you want a more serene and isolated experience, you could combine a visit to Yala with one to Uduwalawe National Park, which receives less visitors and is famed for its huge herds of elephants. For those amongst you who want to tick seeing a leopard off your bucket list, then Yala National Park is definitely the place to visit.
Have you been to Yala National Park? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below!