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Yala National Park – what travel agents aren’t telling you and you need to know!

Posted in: Sri-Lanka

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Yala National Park – what travel agents aren’t telling you and you need to know!

We returned to Yala national park in June 2017 and since it had been a few years since our last visit, we expected change; but nothing on the scale we witnessed. The newly completed ferry terminal at Hambantota – built to accommodate large cruise ships - has had a terrible effect on the quality of jeep safaris in Yala (think M25 in rush hour!) and unless the park authorities URGENTLY limit the number of jeeps inside the park - more than 200 enter the park during weekends and during visits by the cruise ships – the park will simply fall into the 2nd or 3rd division of national parks to visit in South Asia. We have fond memories of action packed days on leopard safaris in Yala national park; tracking the dominant big cat of this tropical island and photographing large male leopards in Yala; strutting around on the main tracks and ignoring the few jeeps who gathered around it

Unfortunately, this has all changed; as greed and corruption has welcomed the ‘cheap’ dollars of foreign cruise ship visitors and forgotten about protecting the very wildlife they have come to see. These cruise ships only include 1 safari in the park but give the ‘jeep mafia’ plenty of business and the park authorities seem oblivious to the damage and pollution caused by the additional vehicles. This is also increased; as when a leopard is sighted the vehicles have to queue (engines always on!) while they wait for their 5 minutes with the Leopard. Do you honestly think that any serious wildlife photographer is going to pay for that type of wildlife safari in Sri Lanka? It may be fine for the selfie obsessed cruise ship visitors, but this once proud national park - known as one of the best places to see Leopards in Asia - has become a laughing stock of the wildlife industry. I also have to say that the standard of most of the drivers and guides in Yala is absolutely shocking – we witnessed drivers with both hands off the wheel, taking a video of a sloth bear; while the front of their jeep was only feet away from the clearly harassed animal.

Leopard safari in Yala national park – how to avoid the cruise ship crowds and be ethical with your choices?

Although we have painted a very depressing (although truthful) account of a jeep safari in Yala national park, there are ways to avoid enduring the type of experience we witnessed on some of our game drives. The first recommendation is to plan your visit to Yala with meticulous precision. You may read many blogs about ‘when is the best time to see Leopards in Yala’; but very few of them will touch on the most important issue; which is massive overcrowding of the park due to negligent and inefficient park management. Yala national park can simply not support 200 jeeps entering each morning and afternoon and that is the first thing we must all push to change. So, you can definitely avoid both national holidays and weekends. It may even be able to look at the cruise ship schedule for Sri Lanka and see if there is a small window during which you can travel.

The second HUGE decision you can make it to organise a camping safari next to Yala national park (no camping is allowed inside the park!); although this also needs to be meticously researched and planned to get the best results. The reason for this is that the specialist camping safari operators in Yala – at least for some of the companies – enter from side gates into Yala and avoid the huge crowds; also avoiding the main gate which several major Yala safari lodges use and all the cruise ship traffic arrives into. The big problem with the main gate into Zone 1, is that it remains just one road for several kms before allowing you to pick various off shoots. So, it is a particular nightmare if you spot a Leopard (as we did – a female leopard and cubs) early in your safari drive and then turnaround to see a mass of jeeps and tourists hot on your heels. Obviously, they are going to know you are stopping for some reason and very quickly you will have 20 or 30 jeeps for company.

Another big advantage of a camping safari in Yala is that they will tend to offer you a more deluxe jeep safari with a specialist naturalist accompanying you. Given the very low level of experience and ethics demonstrated by the ‘standard’ driver and wildlife guides in Yala, it really does PAY to go with a company who values how important a quality wildlife guide is to your leopard safari experience in Yala national park.

I want my Leopard safari in Yala national park to be special – what do I need to do?

We also want you to have a special time at Yala, but believe us, if you choose the cheapest option and the easy route, you will not have the wildlife safari in Yala that you hoped for. This is simply because most ‘standard’ tour operators think you will be happy with a glimpse of a leopard, whatever the crowding, poor quality of your guides and unethical pursuit of the leoaprds.

Here are our Top Tips for a Yala safari that will not disappoint

Ideally book a specialist Leopard camping safari in Yala, which will visit the less busy zones and only take full day jeep safaris with packed lunches. We would highly recomend our 12 Camping safari at Wilpattu and Yala national park wildlfie holiday. 

If you prefer to stay in a Yala safari lodge or hotel with additional facilities such as swimming pools and Al a Carte restaurants, then insist on upgrading to a deluxe jeep with specialist naturalist. This will be the best decision you make on your Sri Lank safari. Our clients have enjoyed and respected our 5 day Jetwing Yala Leopard safari at Yala national park.

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