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With trumpeting elephants, monkeys crashing through the trees, peacocks in their finest frocks and cunning leopards sliding like shadows through the undergrowth, Yala National Park (also known as Ruhunu) is The Jungle Book brought to glorious life. This vast region of dry woodland and open patches of grasslands is the big draw of this corner of Sri Lanka, and though it’s far from Kenya, a safari here is well worth all the time, effort and cost.The entrance fees are payable at the main office, which is near the entrance, some 21km from Tissa. There are a few displays here of the pickled and stuffed variety. The road from Tissa is rough but passable, although a 4WD is necessary once in the park. Realistically the only way to visit the park is as part of a safari. Part of the entrance fee includes the services of an animal tracker – quality varies. Tips are both expected and usually earned; about Rs 200 each for the tracker and driver is average.Yala combines a strict nature reserve with a national park, bringing the total protected area to 126,786 hectares of scrub, light forest, grassy plains and brackish lagoons. It’s divided into five blocks, with the most visited being Block I (14,101 hectares), which, at the time of research, was the only one actually open to tourists. Also known as Yala West, this block was originally a reserve for hunters, but was given over to conservation in 1938.

With over 35 leopards, Yala West has one of the world’s densest leopard populations and is renowned as one of the best places in which to see one of these stunning cats. Panthera pardus kotiya, the subspecies you may well see, is unique to Sri Lanka. The best time to spot leopards is February to June or July, when the water levels in the park are low. Elephants are also well-known inhabitants (the best time to spot them is also between February and July), and with luck you’ll also get to see the shaggy-coated sloth bear or some of the fox-like jackals. Sambars, spotted deer, boars, crocodiles, buffaloes, mongooses and monkeys are here in their hundreds.Around 150 species of birds have been recorded at Yala, many of which are visitors escaping the northern winter. These birds include white-winged black terns, curlews and pintails. Locals include jungle fowl, hornbills, orioles and peacocks by the bucket load. The avian highlight, though, is the exceedingly rare black-necked stalk, of which there are only around ten individuals in the entire country.Despite the large quantity of wildlife the light forest can make spotting animals quite hard; fortunately help is at hand in the form of small grassy clearings and lots of waterholes around which the wildlife congregates. The end of the dry season (March to April) is the best time to visit as during and shortly after the rains the animals disperse over a wide area.

As well as herds of elephants, Yala contains the remains of a once-thriving human community. A monastic settlement, Situlpahuwa, appears to have housed 12,000 inhabitants. Now restored, it’s an important pilgrimage site. A 1st-century BC vihara (Buddhist complex), Magul Maha Vihara, and a 2nd-century BC chetiya (Buddhist shrine), Akasa Chetiya, point to a well-established community, believed to have been part of the ­ancient Ruhunu kingdom.Note that Yala has recently been plagued with security issues, which has at times led to its closure. At the time of research it was once again open to tourists, but the security presence in the park remains high and you should check the situation before trekking out here. You can safely say that if the park is open to tourists, then visiting poses no risk.