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Sri Lanka safari - Yala national park, where the largest leopards in Asia roam!

Posted in: Sri-Lanka

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Sri Lanka safari at Yala National Park

Back in 2002 when we first visited Yala national park it's repuation as one of the best places to see Leopards in Asia was only just starting to be known by a few keen Sri Lankan wildlife photographers and the odd international tourist. Sri Lanka was known for its warm, friendly people, stunning beaches and incredible history going back thousands of years, but as a big cat safari destination it was very much in the shadow of the famous tiger reserves of India; such as Bandhavgarh, Kanha and Ranthambhore. However wildlife photographers who did make it to Yala national park, were amazed at the charismatic leopards they encounted - especailly some of the large male leopards; since leopards in Sri Lanka are literally the 'top cat' on the island - because tigers never manged to colonize - they have the same swagger and confidence of large male tigers in India, making them a photographers dream. 

Sri Lanka safari - How to reach Yala National Park

​One of the big advantages of a safari in Sri Lanka over India is the relatively small distances between national parks and the opportunity for a very competetive price to take along your own Sri Lanka wildlife guide as you journey from one location to another. They will add so much to the quality of your trip and intepretation of the wildlife your encounter and we can highly recommend this approach. If your arrival port is Colombo and you are ready to set off in your vehicle early morning then traveling to Yala nationa park in one day is doeable, but not recommended. We pride ourselves on our 'slow tourism' approach to customising our Sri Lanka safaris, so we would be looking at a stop over mid-way along the south coast - such as the beautiful coastal town of Mirissa - where you have the opportunity between Decemeber and April to view the Blue Whale - the largest species of Whale in the world. There is also the opportunity to stop off at Uda Walawe national park to view and photograph its significant population of wild elephants, which is just located 1-2 hours west of Yala.

Sri Lanka safari - How to maximise your wildlife photography at Yala national park

As discussed earlier one of the best things you can do is take along a wildlife guide and naturalist who knows Yala well. Since Yala is the most famous national park in Sri Lanka, these guides will be visiting the park multiple times per year and be aware of the various female and male leopards who live here and which zones to focus on during the wildlife safari. We offer all our clients travelling to Yala national park the option of having their own private naturalist, as well as the choice to upgrade to a deluxe jeep for their leopard safari. Paying extra for a deluxe jeep does not just give you a more comfortable game ride inside the park, it also tends to come with the more knowledgeable and better drivers, who are responsible for driving and taking care of these superior vehicles. So when you combine the better driver, with a better safari vehicle and your own private naturalist, your leopard safari experience in Yala national park will go to another level. They will also use their ethical judgement to leave a leopard sighting when there are too many vehicles and move to a quieter zone of Yala, where you have the chance to see other animals, such as Sloth Bear and Asian Elephants.

For those of you with money burning a hole in your pocket and not too keen on long road journeys, you can look at chartering a flight from Colombo to Hambantota with Cinnamon Air; or another location closer to Yala national park. Obviously charter flights make more sense economically if you are a family group of a minimum of two couples. To be careful with website advertising scheduled flights to locations close to Yala, as in our experience these flights can be cancelled with short notice if there is not the demand.

Best time of year to see leopards in Yala National Park?

So the first thing to bear in mind with a leopard safari in Yala is that because they are the dominant cat species, they exhibit a more diurnal type of behaviour, as they are more confident walking around their territory in daylight. You would never witness this type of leopard behaviour in a major tiger sanctuary in India, where leopards have to stay on the fringes and are more active at night in the buffer areas of the national park. So for wildlife photographers, this means that anytime of the year can be good to see leopards in Yala. However as a general rule of thumb – which applies to nearly all big cat safaris around the world – the hotter, drier months will produce more leopard sightings and there will be less undergrowth getting in the way of your perfect leopard shot. If you want to visit Yala at this time of year, you should be looking at the months of June, July and August – Yala national park closes in September.

Where to stay at Yala national park?

There have always been several good quality hotels and wildlife lodges to stay in when visiting Yala and one of the important things you need to consider, is how far the particular property is away from the entrance gate of Yala and whether that will impact your leopard safari. In addition, over the last 10 years we have seen the emergence of the African style tented camp option available at Yala and when these camps first started they were a great option for your Sri Lanka safari, as often they were located in the national park themselves, allowing visitors to have a real and authentic bush type experience. However this was banned a few years ago and now all tented camps at both Yala and other parks such as Wilpattu and Uda Walawe, can only be located in the buffer areas outside of the core are of the park. This still provides a more intimate leopard safari at Yala and allows clients staying there quick access to the parks entrance gates and a feeling of wilderness at the private camp site. If you would like to experience this private camp leopard safari at Yala then check out our Sri Lanka safari visiting Wilpattu and Yala national parks.

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