Yala is the most visited and has the second largest national park in Sri Lanka. Actually it consists of five blocks, two of which are now open to the public; and also adjoining parks.
The blocks have individual names also, like Ruhuna National Park for the (best known) block 1 and Kumana National Park or ‘Yala East’ for the adjoining area. It is situated in the southeast region of the country, and lies in Southern Province and Uva Province. The park covers 979 square kilometres (378 sq mi) and is located about 300 kilometres (190 mi) from Colombo. Yala was designated as a wildlife sanctuary in 1900, and, along with Wilpattu it was one of the first two national parks in Sri Lanka, having been designated in 1938. The park is best known for its variety of wild animals. It is important for the conservation of Sri Lankan Elephants and aquatic birds.
There are six national parks and three wildlife sanctuaries in the vicinity of Yala. 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 civilizations. Two important pilgrim sites, Sithulpahuwa and Magul Vihara, are situated within the park. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami caused severe damage on the Yala National Park and 250 people died in its vicinity. The number of visitors has been on the rise since 2009 after the security situation in the park improved.
In 1560 Spanish cartographer Cipriano Sanchez noted Yala in his map “is abandoned for 300 years due to insalubrious conditions.” Chief Justice Sir Alexander Johnston wrote a detailed account on Yala in 1806 after travelling from Trincomalee to Hambantota. On March 23, 1900 the government proclaimed Yala and Wilpattu reserves under the Forest Ordinance. Initially the extent of the reserve was 389 square kilometres (150 sq mi) between the Menik and Kumbukkan Rivers. At that time the reserve did not bear the name Yala. The Game Protection Society (now the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society) was instrumental in establishing the reserve. The forest area between Palatupana and Yala was declared a hunting site reserved only for the resident sportsmen.
Henry Engelbrecht was appointed as the first park warden. He was a Boer officer served under General de Wet in the Second Boer War. He was taken as a prisoner of war in 1900 and had deported to Ceylon with 5,000 other prisoners. As Engelbrecht refused to swear allegiance to Edward VII, he was not allowed to repatriate to South Africa. Although he was granted the freedom of movement within the country, he could obtain his pension only from the Kachcheri of Hambantota. The governor of Ceylon, Sir Henry Arthur Blake met him on a journey to Hambantota from Badulla, and as a result, in 1908 Engelbrecht was awarded the position of warden. He administrated the area well, took care of wildlife and apprehended illegal hunters. However during World War I, he was imprisoned for supplying meat to a German cruiser, SMS Emden. Engelbrecht was released after three months, and he returned to Hambantota. He died in poverty after a few years on 25 March 1922. In 1931 Captain S. Withoift, who was the second in command of the ship came to Colombo and addressed the Colombo Rotary Club. Lucien Poulier, the lawyer of Engelbrecht wrote a letter to him and received a letter from Withoift claiming that the ship never received meat or had any connection with Ceylon during the ship’s voyage in the Indian Ocean.
Map of Yala National Park
On 1 March 1938 Yala became a national park when the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance was passed into law by D. S. Senanayake, the minister of agriculture. The park consists of five blocks. Subsequently four other blocks were incorporated to the park. There are six national parks and three wildlife sanctuaries in the vicinity of Yala. Kumana National Park, Yala Strict Nature Reserve and Kataragama, Katagamuwa, and Nimalawa sanctuaries are continuous with the park.
Yala 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 rangelands of 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). The common mangrove plants are Rhizophora mucronata, Sonneratia caseolaris, Avicennia spp., and Aegiceras corniculatum. The lagoons of Pilinnawa, Mahapothana, and Pahalapothana are also located in this block. The other common mangrove species are Sonneratia caseolaris, Acanthus ilicifolius, Excoecaria agallocha, and Lumnitzera racemosa. In the bare sand Crinum zeylanicum is found.
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. The Cynodon barberi is the common grass in Pitiya grasslands while Zoysia matrella becomes dominant near the beach. Among 300 odd floral species are Manilkara hexandra, Drypetes sepiaria, Ceylon Satinwood, Terminalia arjuna, Limonia, Berrya cordifolia, Randia dumetorum, Pleurostylia opposita, Gymnema sylvestre, Bell mimosa, Neem, Banyan, Toothbrush tree, Schleichera oleosa, Vitex pinnata, Indian blackberry, Gmelina asiatica, Carissa spinarum, Euphorbia antiquorum, and Acacia eburnea. 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. The Munronia pumila, Salacia reticulata, and Asparagus racemosus are the medicinal plants.
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 300–350 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.
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 are Sri 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. Waterfowls (Lesser Whistling Duck, Garganey), Cormorants (Little Cormorant, Indian Cormorant), large waterbirds (Grey Heron, Black-headed Ibis, Eurasian Spoonbill, Asian Openbill, Painted Stork), medium-sized waders Tringa spp., and small waders Charadrius spp. are among the common waterbirds. Black-necked Stork and Lesser Adjutant are the rare birds that can be seen in the park. The migrant Great White Pelican and resident Spot-billed Pelican are also have been recorded. Other waterbirds attracted to the Yala lagoons include Lesser Flamingo, and Pelicans, and rare species such as Purple Heron, Night herons, Egrets, Purple Swamphen, and Oriental Darter. Thousands of waterfowls migrate to the lagoons of Yala during the northeast monsoon. They are Northern Pintail, White-winged Tern, Eurasian Curlew, Whimbrel, Godwits, and Ruddy Turnstone. The visiting species mingled with residing Lesser Whistling Duck, Yellow-wattled Lapwing, Red-wattled Lapwing, and Great Stone-curlew. Rock Pigeon, Barred Buttonquail, Indian Peafowl, Black Stork, Black-winged Stilt, and Greater Flamingo are among the other bird species. Crested Serpent-eagle and White-bellied Sea Eagle are the raptors of the park. The forest birds are Orange-breasted Green Pigeon, Hornbills, Old World flycatchers, Asian Paradise-flycatcher, Asian barbets, and Orioles.
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 fish Mozambique 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, and Common Mormon are the common species.