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A Yala Safari — Into the Wild Heart of Sri Lanka

Elephants at Yala National Park

The stunning Yala National Park is one of the most revered wildlife reserves in Sri Lanka, as it’s home to the highest density of leopards in the world. Here’s all you need to know in order to plan the perfect Yala safari.

The tiny island nation of Sri Lanka is a fantastic destination for wildlife lovers. It’s home to a huge diversity of animals, including leopards, elephants, boars, monkeys, crocodiles and tons more. It’s also home to a range of exemplary national parks which provide excellent habitats for wildlife to thrive.

Of Sri Lanka’s many national parks, Yala is the most famous. This is due to its high concentration of leopards, as well as its close proximity to the beach resorts in the south of the country. Yala National Park covers an area of approximately 979km² and is so rich in wildlife, it would be almost impossible not to have a fruitful safari.

In this article, we’ll explore what animals you can expect to see in the park, and help you plan your perfect Yala safari.

Water buffalo at Yala National Park

“Yala National Park: where the wild heart of Sri Lanka beats with unparalleled fervour.”

What animals can you see in Yala?

Yala National Park is home to 44 species of mammals, 215 species of birds and 46 species of reptiles. This is a huge range of biodiversity, and it would be practically impossible to not see any animals during your safari.

And while taking a safari doesn’t guarantee that you’ll see every animal that lives in Yala, it’s safe to expect to see water buffalos, wild boars, spotted deer, monkeys and peacocks up close. Keep an eye out for the impressive mugger crocodiles lurking in the waterways, as well as various species of turtles, lizards, snakes, and frogs.

Beyond this, there is also the potential to see rarer species such as leopards, elephants, black sloth bears, fishing cats and red slender loris.

Leopards in Yala National Park

Yala National Park is home to the highest concentration of leopards in the world, making it the number one destination for spotting these incredible cats. It’s estimated that around 55 leopards reside in the park, so you might just be lucky enough to spot one on your safari.

Keep in mind, though, that wild animals are not predictable and each safari experience is unique. Sightings of rare species like leopards can’t be guaranteed, so I recommend keeping your expectations low to avoid disappointment.

That being said, your Jeep driver will know all the best spots for leopard sightings and will do his best!

Approaching Yala National Park
I didn’t see a leopard on my Yala safari, but they’re out there somewhere!

What’s the landscape like?

Watching animals in a beautiful setting really makes a safari all the more wonderful, and Yala is the perfect stage upon which to see Sri Lanka’s wildlife. Yala National Park is characterized by a mix of dense forest, scrubland, grassland, and lagoons.

The terrain of the park also makes it easy to see across long distances. There are some rocky outcrops and hills scattered throughout, but the terrain is mostly flat, which makes wildlife viewing easier. The park is bisected by several rivers and streams, which provide important water sources for the park’s resident wildlife. This makes it easier to know where animals are likely to congregate.

Yala National Park Lagoon
The flat terrain and lagoons make wildlife spotting easy

Conservation efforts in Yala

Through dedicated conservation efforts, Yala National Park safeguards its resident animals from threats such as poaching and habitat loss. The park is divided into several “blocks,” of which only a few are open to the public. This helps to ensure species remain protected.

Conservation efforts also have a direct impact on the livelihoods of local communities. The park generates significant revenue through tourism, creating job opportunities and driving the local economy. By engaging in sustainable tourism practices and supporting conservation initiatives, visitors to Yala National Park can play a vital role in safeguarding this precious ecosystem and empowering its surrounding communities.

When is the best time to visit?

The best time to visit Yala National Park is from February to June during the dry season. With less water in the ponds, it’s easier to spot animals coming out to drink. The peak season for leopards is February and March. 

The best time of day to visit is either early morning (6 am – 9 am) or late afternoon (3 pm – 6 pm), as this is when wildlife is most active.

Entrance to Yala National Park

Note: Yala National Park is usually closed for maintenance during the month of September.

How to arrange a Yala safari

The nearest town to Yala National Park is Tissamaharama (often shortened to Tissa). There are tons of safari operators here, and most accommodations can also help you arrange your Yala safari. For a beautiful place to stay in Tissa that compliments your safari experience, I suggest either Flameback Eco Lodge or Richards Cabanas.

Alternatively, Cinnamon Wild offers a really unique stay right on the edge of Yala itself. You’ll stay in an eco-friendly chalet nestled within 10 acres of green jungle. It’s the perfect launching pad for your safari!

Whether you book your safari through your accommodation or directly with an operator, the operator will usually pick you up from your accommodation and take you back afterwards. Most jeeps have the capacity to take 6 people.

You can choose a morning, afternoon or full-day safari. Morning and afternoon safaris will give you 3 – 4 hours in the park, whereas a full-day safari will be 10 – 12 hours.

Here are a few suggestions for operators to look into:

Yala Safari OperatorAbout the Operator
Yala Wild SafarisYala Wild Safaris offers a range of safari options, from camping to luxury tours. Their experienced guides aim to take you to the best spots for wildlife encounters in Yala National Park.
Shehan SafariShehan Safari prides itself on its eco-friendly approach to exploring Yala National Park. They offer a range of safari options, with a focus on responsible wildlife tourism and conservation.
Yala Leopard Eye SafariYala Leopard Eye Safari specialises in providing a unique experience for travellers, with a particular focus on tracking the elusive leopard. Their experienced guides are passionate about sharing their knowledge of the park and its wildlife.

How much does a Yala safari cost?

As of 2021, foreigners pay LKR 4,000 (approx. £16) per adult and LKR 2,000 (approx. £8) per child to enter the park. There’s also a vehicle entry fee of LKR 2,500 (approx. £10) per jeep.

It’s recommended that you hire a driver/guide for your Yala safari. Expect to pay around LKR 8,000 to 12,000 (approx. £32-48) for a half-day tour and LKR 15,000 to 20,000 (approx. £60-80) for a full-day tour.

All in, it’s an average of 65 USD per person for a safari in Yala. This includes your park entrance ticket, as well as the hire of a jeep and guide. The price is higher than other national parks in Sri Lanka, but the quality of wildlife sightings you’re likely to have completely justifies this.

View from a jeep in Yala National Park
A Yala safari is an average of about 65 USD per person

My experience on safari in Yala National Park

I visited Sri Lanka primarily to go cycling, so spent the morning biking around the Tissa countryside. This in itself was a fabulous experience — cycling near a national park meant we saw plenty of exotic birds, water buffalo, flying foxes and monkeys.

Flying Foxes near Yala National Park
It was amazing to see flying foxes resting in the trees while cycling around Tissa

We went back to the hotel to have lunch, before being transferred to Yala National Park for an afternoon safari. We entered the park at about 3 pm.

Because I knew how popular Yala safaris are, I expected to see tons of other jeeps. And while there were definitely other jeeps, it wasn’t anywhere near as packed as I expected. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised by how unbothered I felt by other vehicles. I can’t promise it won’t be busy during your visit, but I didn’t find the volume of tourists to be an issue.

I had done a safari in Minneriya about a week ago and was pleased to see that the landscape and “vibe” of Yala is completely different to in Minneriya. This made it feel like a whole new experience. We very quickly saw a group of wild boars after entering Yala, followed by elephants, water buffalo, monkeys and peacocks.

Wild Boar crossing the road in front of a jeep at Yala National Park
Wild boars crossing the road in front of our jeep

Unfortunately, I didn’t see a leopard during my time in Yala National Park, however, I had kept my expectations low so that I wasn’t disappointed by this. I suggest you do the same, as it’s not guaranteed that you’ll see a leopard. The variety of wildlife we did see was amazing, though. We had lots of unique sightings and saw plenty of crocodiles, monkeys, wild boars, monitor lizards and more. We also saw absolutely tons of elephants, including a few babies.

Person looking at a grey langur from inside a jeep

After spending a good few hours admiring Yala’s wildlife, we left the park at about 6:30 pm.

My Yala safari was one of the highlights of my two weeks in Sri Lanka — an absolutely wonderful experience that I highly recommend.

Thank you for reading! If you found this post useful, I’d be grateful if you would consider using the affiliate links below when planning your travels. I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you. This will help me to keep this blog running. Thanks for your support – Lauren.

Hotels – Booking.com
Hostels – Hostelworld
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Outdoor gear – Decathlon / GO Outdoors
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  1. How interesting since when I was in Sri Lanka, I opted for Udawalawe to see wildlife. As far as I remember, Yala was too much off my route. This way, I enjoy your post even more since I missed out on this reserve. Sri Lanka is a great place and my trip there was definitely one of my best travels – such an amazing mix of so many great features.

  2. We have been to several game drives and saw a wide variety of wild animals. But we have never seem leopards in the wild. So a safari in Sri Lanka at the Yala National Park. Glad to know you did not find it packed with jeeps. But too bad you missed leopards on your visit.

  3. Hey I have been there too! And… I didn’t see a leopard on my Yala safari! Actually I saw one but it was really far away and I was a bit sad about this. On the other hand, I loved the nature around us!

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