Yala National Park is the most visited and second largest national park in Sri Lanka. The park consists of five blocks, two of which are now open to the public, and also adjoining parks. The blocks have individual names such as, Ruhuna National Park (block 1) and Kumana National Park or ‘Yala East’ for the adjoining area. The park is best known for its variety of wild animals. It is important for the conservation of Sri Lankan Elephants, Sri Lankan leopards and aquatic birds.
There are six national parks and three wildlife sanctuaries in the vicinity of Yala. Among the largest is Lunugamvehera National Park. The park is situated in the dry semi-arid climatic region and rain is received mainly during the northeast monsoon. Yala hosts a variety of ecosystems ranging from moist monsoon forests to freshwater and marine wetlands. It is one of the 70 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in Sri Lanka. Yala harbours 215 bird species including six endemic species of Sri Lanka. The number of mammals that has been recorded from the park is 44, and it has one of the highest leopard densities in the world.
The area around Yala has hosted several ancient civilisations. Two important pilgrim sites, Sithulpahuwa and Magul Vihara, are situated within the park.
Yala National Park has a variety of ecosystems including moist monsoon forests, dry monsoon forests, semi deciduous forests, thorn forests,grasslands, fresh water and marine wetlands, and sandy beaches.
The area under forest cover mainly consists of Block I and rangelandsof open parkland (Pelessa grasslands) including some extensive grasslands. The forest area is restricted to around the Menik River while rangelands are found towards the sea side. Other habitat types of the Block I are tanks and water holes, lagoons and mangroves and chena lands. The mangrove vegetation in the Buthuwa lagoon is largely Rhizophora mucronata while Avicennia spp. and Aegiceras spp. are less abundant. The vegetation of Block II is similar to those of Block I, and Yalawela, once a fertile paddy field, represents Pitiya grasslands. The mangroves of Block II occur around the estuary of Menik River, which extent to 100 hectares (0.39 sq mi).
In the Blocks III, IV, and V, forests are more widespread. The canopy of the forest mainly contains Drypetes sepiaria and Manilkara hexandra plant species. The Pitiya grasslands are important for grazing animals. In the seasonally flooded areas of Block II, a wild species of rice (Oryza sp.) is found. The Glenniea unijuga is an endemic plant species found around the wetlands of the park. TheMunronia pumila, Salacia reticulata, and Asparagus racemosus are the medicinal plants.
Yala is one of the 70 Important Bird Areas (IBAs) in Sri Lanka. Of 215 bird species of the park, six are endemic to Sri Lanka. They areSri Lanka Grey Hornbill, Sri Lanka Junglefowl, Sri Lanka Wood Pigeon, Crimson-fronted Barbet, Black-capped Bulbul, and Brown-capped Babbler. The number of waterbirds inhabiting wetlands of Yala is 90 and half of them are migrants.
Including Sri Lankan Elephant, 44 species of mammals are resident in Yala National Park, and it has one of the highest leopard densities in the world. 25 individual leopards are estimated to roam in Block I. The elephant herd of Yala contains 300â€“350 individuals. Sri Lankan Sloth Bear, Sri Lankan Leopard, Sri Lankan Elephant, Wild water buffalo are threatened species that Yala is harbouring. Although water buffaloes are indigenous to Sri Lanka, most populations contain genes of the domestic stock or are descended from feral stock. Toque Macaque, Golden Palm Civet, Red Slender Loris, and Fishing Cat are among the other mammals that can be seen in Yala. The elephant population of the park varies seasonally.
The reptile fauna recorded from the park is 46 and five of them are endemic. Sri Lankan Krait, Boulenger’s Keelback, Sri Lankan Flying Snake, Painted-lip Lizard and Wiegmann’s Agama are the endemic species. The coastal line of the park is visited by the all five globally endangered sea turtles (Leatherback turtle, Olive Ridley, Loggerhead Sea Turtle, Hawksbill turtle, and Green turtle) that visit Sri Lanka. The two breeding crocodile species of Sri Lanka, Mugger crocodile and Saltwater Crocodile inhabit the park. The Indian Cobra and Russell’s viper are among the other reptiles.
There are 18 amphibians species that have been recorded from Yala while Bufo atukoralei and Adenomus kelaartii are endemic to Sri Lanka.
In the water courses of Yala, 21 fresh water fishes are found. The fish population in the perennial reservoirs contain mostly exotic food fishMozambique tilapia. The Stone sucker and Esomus thermoicos are endemic among other species. The Blackspot barb, Olive Barb,Orange chromide and Common Spiny Loach are the common fish species.
Crabs and prawns include the fauna in the lagoons of the park.
A variety of butterfly species is found here. The Common bluebottle, Common Lime Butterfly, Crimson Rose, Common Jezebel, andCommon Mormon are the common species.
The Yala National Park is the most visited park in Sri Lanka. In 2002 around 156,867 tourists visited the park. Foreigners, especially Europeans, account for 30% of total visitors. Block I is the main area for visits. Block III (main gate in Galge area, on Buttala-Kataragama Road) and the adjoining Kumana Park or ‘Yala East’ (main gate at Okanda, on the east coast not far from Pottuvil) however are becoming popular in their own right too.