If you are in the early stages of planning a Yala National park safari, you probably have a lot of questions like ‘will I actually see leopards?’ or ‘when should I visit?’
So I decided to write this Yala safari guide to help answer all of your burning questions about visiting Yala National park and help you organise an amazing wildlife safari in Sri Lanka, like the one I had personally.
Yala National Park is one of the best places for a leopard safari in Sri Lanka. With the worlds highest concentration of Leopards, you have a great chance of spotting Leopards here. But beyond leopards, you will also see a huge variety of wildlife on a Yala National park safari and it’s very likely to become one of your absolute best experiences in Sri Lanka.
Going on a wildlife safari is one of the most popular things to do in Sri Lanka and with good reason. There are so many wildlife opportunities in Sri Lanka such as spotting leopards in Yala, seeing huge herds of elephants in Minneriya National Park and whale watching in Mirissa.
Sri Lanka really is a dream wildlife destination and if you love seeing animals in the wild, a safari absolutely has to be on your Sri Lanka itinerary.
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What you can expect from this article...
- 1 So why choose Yala National Park?
- 2 The history of Yala National park
- 3 What animals will I see on a Yala National Park safari?
- 4 What to Expect on a safari in Yala National park
- 5 Which part of the park should I visit?
- 6 Tips for Visiting Yala National Park
- 7 How to book a Yala National park Safari Tour
- 8 Frequently asked questions about booking a Yala National Park safari
- 9 Yala National Park – where to stay?
- 10 What Next?
So why choose Yala National Park?
There are many national parks where you can go on a wildlife safari in Sri Lanka, so why choose Yala?
The main advantage of booking a safari in Yala National Park is that you stand the best chance of seeing Leopards. If you are not fussed about Leopards and you’re all about the elephants then I would recommend visiting Minneriya National park instead. Yala National park has elephants but you won’t see nearly as many as in some other parks.
However, there is also a huge variety of wildlife in Yala National park and I saw so many more animals here than I did on safaris elsewhere. I think this is in part due to the varied landscape in Yala. There are wide open spaces, scrub bush, forest and wetlands to suit a huge variety of animals.
What are the alternatives locations for a wildlife safari in Sri Lanka?
Whilst Yala is one of the best places for a safari in Sri Lanka, especially for leopard safari’s, there are some other options. Minneriya and Udawalawe National parks are both great for seeing elephants but there is less chance of seeing leopards.
Minneriya National Park
Go here if you want to see huge herds of elephants, especially if you are visiting in August. With a lack of drinking hole options, elephants head en masse to Minneriya and sometimes you will see hundreds of elephants all hanging out by the water. Yep, hundreds. We saw about 40 or so in March. Minneriya National Park was great for elephant sightings but we didn’t see a lot of other wildlife unlike in Yala National park. If you can, visit both.
Udawlawe National park
Go here if you want to visit an ethical elephant rehabilitation centre, the Elephant Transit Home. The elephants here are going to be released back into the wild when they are ready and are not there for tourists amusements unlike other so-called ‘rehabilitation centres.’ Udawalawe National park is also a great place to see elephants in the wild however the chances of seeing Leopards are much smaller.
The history of Yala National park
Yala National Park was first designated as a wildlife sanctuary in 1900 where it was used as a hunting ground under British rule. In 1938, it then became a National Park along with Wilpattu – the first two national parks in Sri Lanka.
It spans 979 Square Kilometres of land and borders the South east Sri Lankan coastline – it’s one of the few places where you may encounter an elephant on the beach
The National park now is the most visited National Park in Sri Lanka but there are certain zones which are not open to the public and these areas are used for education and conservation of the flora and fauna.
What animals will I see on a Yala National Park safari?
You will see so much wildlife in Yala. Whilst you are probably mst excited to see Leopards and Elephants, here are a few other animals you may see on a Yala safari…
- Sloth bears – another popular sighting although less common, the elusive sloth bear. We didn’t spot one so this is a stock photo. But I hope you get to see some as they are super cool!
- Crocodiles – keep your eyes peeled as they can be difficult to spot and look like logs floating n the water!
- Buffalo — the first buffalo we saw, we thought was a rock as it was almost completekly submerged in the water to keep cool. We were busy admiring the bird sat on top of the rock – until the rock poked his head up!
- Deer – we saw so many deer on our morning safari when they come out to graze. They can be a little skittish so keep quiet and take your photos quickly before they run away.
- Lizards – We saw a huge monitor lizard digging a hole, it didn’t seem to care that it was being watched!
- Birds – there are over 215 species of birds in Yala, 6 of which are endemic to Sri Lanka. It is a bird watching paradise here.
- Wild Boar – not the prettiest of animals but they are cute. Sort of.
- Monkeys – no matter how many monkeys I see, I still love them. Such little characters. We saw several varieties throughout our Yala safari.
- Mongoose. Although sometimes considered as a pest in Sri Lanka, I think these little animals are really cute!
And if course, if you are lucky…. Elephants and Leopards!
What are the chances of seeing a Leopard on a safari in Sri Lanka?
This can depend on the weather and time you visit. When I visited at the end of March, we were told the chances of seeing a leopard was about 50% on every safari ride. So the more safari’s you take, the more chance you have of spotting leopards. If you visit for more than 1 or 2 days, you have a very good chance of spotting leopards.
Facts about Leopards
- The Sri Lankan Leopard is an endangered species with population estimates at 700-950 (in the wild.)
- The average male Leopard weighs in at around 50-60kg but can grow up to around 100kg.
- Leopards are nocturnal hunters but are also active at dawn and dusk, hence these are the best times to spot them on a safari.
- The spots on a Sri Lankan Leopard are smaller than those on an Indian leopard.
Facts about elephants
- The Sri Lankan elephant is the largest and darkest of asian sub-species
- They hang out in a herd with 12-20 or more elephants all led by the eldest female – the matriarch
- The elephant population in Sri Lanka has fallen by 65% since 19th century and they are now endangered. Killing an elephant in Sri Lanka carries the death penalty!
- Asian elephants are 8-10 ft tall and can weigh up to 5400Kg! (600kg less than their African cousins.)
- Asian elephants have smaller ears shaped link India whereas African elephants have larger ears shaped like Africa! How cool is that?
- Elephants spend 12-18 hrs a day eating and create 1 tonne of elephant poo a week!
- Elephants throw mud and sand over themselves to protect themselves from the hot sun. Clever!
What are the Big Five in Sri Lanka?
Just like the Big Five on safari in Africa, there is a Sri Lankan Big Five too. These are the animals that everyone wants to catch sight of when they visit.
Yala National Park is the only National Park where you can see all five as it borders the beautiful coastline. The Big Five are;
- The Leopard
- The Elephant
- The Sloth Bear
- The Blue Whale
- The Sperm Whale.
What to Expect on a safari in Yala National park
Firstly, you should know that you won’t be alone! Although there are far more restrictions in Yala National park to ensure less crowding, you will still see a fair number of safari vehicles. That said, I think I saw more in Minneriya National park than in Yala.
The safari drivers get fined and banned for 2 weeks if they arrive back after 6 pm. So if it gets to 5.30, your driver will have to head back without making many stops. Don’t be surprised if this happens.
Usually you will stop once during the safari where you can get out to stretch your legs. Many safari drivers will also provide you with snacks and water at this point. There may be a toilet block here but don’t be surprised if you just have to cross your legs!
At 6 Am before the park gates open, there will be a queue. Get there early if you want to be first into the park!
Which part of the park should I visit?
The park is divided into 5 different zones or blocks, some of which are open to the public and others which are used for research and documentary purposes only.
The most popular zone for safari’s in yala is Block one. Hee there is the highest concentration of leopards. It’s also the oldest part of the park so Leopards here are used to seeing the safari vehicles and may be less shy than in other regions in the park.
Try to go on safari in Block one for the best chance of seeing a leopard.
Tips for Visiting Yala National Park
- Take LOTS of sunscreen, water and a hat. One of my friends got heat stroke on safari in Sri Lanka. Often whilst driving, there is a lovely breeze. So you can underestimate how hot it is and not drink enough water or protect yourself from the sun.
- Take bug spray. Since safaris are conducted at the start and end of the day when mozzies are prevalent, I’d encourage you to apply plenty of bug spray.
- Factor in time for at least 2-3 safari’s if you can to maximise the opportunity of seeing a leopard.
- Always take a guide or a ‘spotter.’ Some safaris only provide a driver but as you can imagine, it’s difficult to spot wildlife and avoid potholes at the same time! You can often hire a spotter at the gates as long as you get there early enough. Ask your driver to negotiate a good deal for you.
Tips for photographing wildlife on a Yala safari
- If you can, bring a camera with a decent zoom or telephoto lens. 95% of my photos were taken with a telephoto 70-300mm lens on my Sony A7III.
- Bring a ‘dust puffer’ to get rid of dust off your camera lens as it will get VERY dusty.
- Keep your shutter speed up high to capture the animals sharply when they move. You may need to increase your ISO to maintain a fast shutter speed as the sun goes down and you have less sunlight at your disposal.
- You often don’t need a wide aperture to capture wildlife photos with a nice Bokeh effect as you will be using a longer zoom. Instead, keep your aperture a little narrower so you stand more chance of getting the animal completely in focus without blurring its eyes or nose! You can always add a little extra bokeh when you are editing your photo if needs be. You can’t recover a soft, blurry photo.
- I edit my wildlife photos with a combination of iPhoto on my Mac, Photoshop and Lightroom depending on how many tweaks it needs. If it’s just the lighting, I’ll often use iPhoto for pure ease.
How to book a Yala National park Safari Tour
There are various ways you can book a wildlife safari in Yala National park.
Booking an all inclusive safari…
You could book your accommodation with a nearby hotel or game camp where the safaris will be organised for you and possibly included in your overall price. keep reading for various accommodation suggestions below…
Arrange a local day trip…
You could stay in nearby town Tissamaharama and either arrange a private safari locally or pre-arrange a safari online. Sometimes this can work out cheaper as you can join other travellers and share the cost.
You can choose to book a half day safari which operates in both the early morning and early evening, a full day safari with both, or an overnight safari with camping included. Here are a few options you may wish to look at…
Top Tip | Whilst a private half day safari may work out cheaper than a half day tour, a full day tour will usually be cheaper than a private day tour as you will incur 2 entrance fees. So the best value trip above is the all day trip. Go check it out!
Visit on a group adventure tour…
The other option is that you join an organised tour in Sri Lanka where everything will be organised for you. This is definitely the easiest way to travel Sri Lanka with minimal stress. It also means that you have an informative travel guide and ready-made travel friends to enjoy your trip with.
I travelled Sri Lanka as a guest with G Adventures on their Sri Lanka Encompassed tour. We did 2 safaris in Yala National park and 1 in Minneriya National Park as well as loads of other cool stuff like visiting tropical beaches in Mirissa, visiting Sigiriya rock, Dambulla cave temple and climbing Little Adams peak. It was an awesome trip, I’d highly recommend it! You can read my G Adventures Sri Lanka Review if you want to know more!
Arrange an excursion…
Your final option is to arrange an excursion from elsewhere. this is great if you are short of time or want to base yourself in one place and not switch hotels all the time. You can organise day trips from Colombo, Tangale, Galle and Mirissa to Yala BUT, you will have to resign yourself to an early start and late finish as it’s a fair trek away!
Group Tours which include a Yala Safari
The two companies I always recommend for group adventure travel trips are G Adventures and Intrepid Travel. Both companies I have travelled with multiple times. Both G Adventures and Intrepid Travel offer trips which include at least one and sometimes more safaris in Yala National Park. Check them out below or read my comparison of G Adventures vs Intrepid Travel.
Frequently asked questions about booking a Yala National Park safari
When is the best time of year to visit Yala National park for a safari?
Leopards are best seen in the dry season. The dry season in Yala is between May and August. At this time, the Leopards can often be found at the watering holes, quenching their thirst.
How long should I stay in Yala National park?
Ideally, try to stay a few days and go on several safari’s both in the early morning and late afternoon. The more safari’s you go on, the greater chance of seeing a leopard. If you just spend a day in Yala National Park, there is the possibility you won’t see any leopards at all. If you stay for 2-3 days then you stand a really good chance of spotting at least one leopard.
That said, if you only have time for one or two safari drives, you will still have an amazing time even if you don’t get lucky with leopards. The scenery and wildlife is incredible in Yala National Park.
How to get to Yala National park
How to get to Yala from Ella
A Taxi will take around 1 hour 30 minutes $30+ ( this will be cheaper if you hire a driver for the full length of trip.) There are also buses to Kataragama and you can arrange a taxi for the last section of the trip.
How to get to Yala from Mirissa
Yala is a 2 hour 20 minute drive and a taxi will cost $35+.
The closest town is Tissamaharama and there are direct buses from Mirissa.
How to get to Yala from Colombo
You will need to get a train or bus to Matamara then from there arrange a taxi or bus to Tissamaharama.
How much does a Yala national Park ticket cost?
Adults: $15 per person entry fee
Children age 6-12: $8 per child
(as per May 2019)
How much will a Wildlife safari in Sri Lanka cost in total?
If you arrange your own safari, then you will need to consider some additional costs.
In addition to the Yala park entrance fee, you also need to consider the cost of hiring a jeep with a driver and a spotter as well as the expected tips for the driver and spotter. The spotters are usually volunteers so the only payment they get is the money you tip them. We were advised by a local that it was standard to tip our spotter and driver 1000Rs each (That’s just under $6.)
You will also need to factor in the cost of accommodation if you decide to stay nearby.
Alternatively, you could organise a group tour or split the cost of the safari jeep with other people to keep the costs down.
Entrance fee: $15
Jeep and driver fee: $35
= Total $62
Yala National Park – where to stay?
Should I camp or stay in a hotel?
I would encourage you to camp near Yala National park. You don’t have to rough it – there are some very glamorous glamping sites with beds, fans, bathrooms and even wifi inside your tents! But for me, camping was all part of the safari experience. However, there are several hotels nearby if you really can’t imagine sleeping inside a tent.
Can you stay inside Yala National park?
No, there are no campsites or hotels inside the park. You can, however, stay on the outskirts near to the main park entrance so you won’t have to travel for miles to reach the park.
Hotels near Yala National park
For those fancy-pants with a luxury budget (lucky you) check out The Coconut Gardens Hotel & Restaurant
Yala National park camping
I stayed at The Big Game Camp Yala and absolutely loved it. Our tent was comfy with proper beds, a fan, plenty of space to stand and even an ensuite bathroom. We even had a wifi tent! The food was amazing, the guides informative and super friendly. I highly recommend it for those with a low-mid budget.
Here are a few other suggestions…
For those on a shoestring budget, check out the no-frills wild eco safari.
For those seeking a bit of luxury without draining the bank account, The Flameback Eco Lodge would be a great choice.
If you can afford it, the Wild Coast Tented Lodge is totally dreamy. This one is #lifegoals for me…
Now that your wildlife safari in Yala National park is over, what’s next?
You could hop over to Arugam Bay for some yoga and surf on one of the best beaches in Sri Lanka or head to the South coast where you can visit charming Galle, hang out at the Secret Beach in Mirissa, go whale watching or visit gorgeous Dalawella beach – the perfect place for some R&R.
Alternatively, you could head inland towards Ella, Kandy and Nuwara Eliya to explore the mountains, tea plantations, temples and rock fortresses such as Sigiriya rock!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this Yala National park safari Guide and hopefully you are convinced that a Yala safari to see Leopards is an absolute must-do in Sri Lanka!
Do you have any questions that I haven’t already answered? In which case, pop them in the comments and I’ll do my best to get back to you asap!
Oh and here are some pretty pins for your Pinterest board so you can come back later…