Yala or Wilpattu National Park?
For a small island, Sri Lanka boasts an impressively diverse terrain and a great variety activities from tropical beach stays and water sports, to cultural temple and tea plantation visits and, to top it all, some superb wildlife experiences. Two of Sri Lanka’s most popular destinations are the Yala and Wilpattu National Parks. Both parks offer striking landscapes and abundant wildlife, but they are located at opposite ends of the island and if you’re under time constraints it may not be practical to visit both during your stay. We’ve put together some highlights and key differences to consider when making a choice between which of the two to visit.
Both parks are fringed by the Indian Ocean; Yala National Park is located in Sri Lanka’s accessible southeast, whilst Wilpattu National Park is tucked away in a more secluded setting on the northwest coast. Stunningly beautiful, Yala is Sri Lanka’s most visited national park, and its landscape is divided into five ‘blocks’. Block 1 has good, easy-to-navigate roads, and this is where safaris most commonly take place. In contrast, Wilpattu is wild and remote – the largest of Sri Lanka’s national parks - and unrestricted game drives can take place anywhere within this vast stretch of land.
Yala’s landscape comprises a mix of open plains, rocky crags, verdant jungle and secluded beaches. Wilpattu offers up huge expanses of forest dotted with waterholes which attract diverse wildlife, particularly during the dry season. Wildlife is plentiful in both parks, although note that more patience will be required in Wilpattu where the animals are more greatly dispersed across a wider area and less accustomed to vehicle traffic. Tented, eco-friendly camps in both parks offer comfortable on-site accommodation combined with game drives and other activities such as cookery classes, archery, photography lessons, birdwatching and nature walks depending on where you stay. These multi-day safari adventures provide the unique opportunity to become fully immersed in the natural surroundings, and families with young children are welcome.
August denotes the beginning of Yala’s dry season when the vegetation dies back and game visibility increases significantly. As the dry season draws to a close later in September, access to water becomes a priority for wildlife and block 1 in Yala might close to visitors for up to six weeks to enable animals to move more freely between the shrinking waterholes. Should block 1 close, safaris will usually continue to take place in alternative sections of the park. Yala’s peak season is during the rainy months of December and January when elephant, buffalo, crocodile and some spectacular, colourful birdlife including parrots and peacocks can be seen. Named after the Sri Lankan leopard, Yala boasts one of the highest densities of leopard on the planet, and the park’s compact size tends to offer higher returns for game viewing, especially as the animals have become used to the presence of vehicles.
Secluded and in many parts unexplored, Wilpattu is also home to abundant wildlife including elephant, crocodile, sloth bear, wild pig and the elusive leopard. Leopard numbers in Wilpattu are significant, but the overall population is not yet known, as the park only reopened in 2009 following the end of civil war. Sloth bears can be viewed in both parks all year round, but are particularly prevalent in Wilpattu. From May to July, these intriguing creatures feast on fruit from the Palu (ironwood) tree, and can often be observed out in the open, enjoying a contented, post-dinner snooze!
The lower visitor numbers and vast wilderness of Wilpattu often guarantee complete privacy when game viewing, whereas the more accessible wildlife sightings in Yala make this park extremely popular with visitors, and so congestion is only to be expected during peak times and public holidays.