Yala National Park is the most visited national park in Sri Lanka and the second largest. It covers a whopping area of 1000sqkm and consists of a diverse landscape that includes monsoon forests, grasslands, flat plains, rocky outcrops, lakes, sandy beaches and marine wetlands. It also has adjoining parks that come together to create a vast ecosystem. The park is an important conservation area for the Sri Lankan leopard, elephant and aquatic birds. Yala has the highest leopard density in the world and is one of the 70 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in Sri Lanka. It harbours 215 bird species and 44 mammal species. The area around Yala is culturally important too, as it has hosted ancient settlements and features two important pilgrim sites. There are six national parks and three wildlife sanctuaries in the vicinity of Yala.
Leopard spotting is one of the most popular activities of Yala and wildlife enthusiasts from all over the world descend upon the park during the peak season. Other animals including the Asian elephant, sloth bear, wild water buffalo, Toque macaque, Golden palm civet, Red slender loris, Sambar deer, spotted deer and the Fishing cat also occupy the park. Saltwater crocodile and the Mugger crocodile are often seen near lakes and rock pools, and at times you can spot turtles on the beaches. There are 130 bird species in Yala, while lagoons in the park provide the perfect environment for a large number of water birds.
Yala’s cultural importance has Hindu mythical roots. It is believed that King Ravana of Hinduism’s epic Ramayana had his legendary kingdom in Yala and it is now submerged in the sea. Ancient lakes, monasteries and temples are scattered throughout the park and attracts not just nature lovers but also pilgrims. The nearest town to Yala is Tissamaharama, the starting point of excursions and where the holy temple of Kataragama is accessible from. Bundala National Park near Tissamaharama is another wildlife reserve which is also a UNESCO Bio Reserve and an Important Bird Area.