Discover Sri Lanka: Yala National Park

After a couple days of serene leisure in Tangalle Beach, EZ and I were recharged and primed for a safari adventure in Yala National Park. Our time in the area happened to coincide with the New Year’s holiday.

Sachika from Janaka Safari picked us up from our hotel at 5:00 a.m. EZ and I climbed into the back of the jeep; a couple from Estonia sat in front of us. We slept on the way to the park. And since we arrived before the park opened at 6:00, we slept for another 45 minutes while waiting (the second in line!) at the entrance.

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Being second in line allowed us to avoid jeep traffic in front of us if a coveted animal was spotted in the near future. Guides tend to trade sightings with each other (or at least with their allied guides) via cell phone, so when the location of an animal sighting is noted, many of the jeeps will race to get there, sometimes creating a roadblock or traffic jam.

I should mention here some drawbacks we were warned about. Yala National Park is a wildlife sanctuary—but it’s basically just the wild, a scrub jungle spanning 379 square miles, with small dirt roads cutting across the land for safaris. It consists of five “blocks” or sections, with each block hosting slightly different habitats and concentrations of specific wildlife. Yala is known to have the highest number of leopards per square foot, so if it’s a leopard you’re after, this park is your best bet. And leopards are the apex predator of Sri Lanka, making them larger than leopards elsewhere.

But Sri Lanka also boasts several other fantastic wildlife parks, some of which were recommended to us over Yala because they are less touristy, and thus less crowded, allowing more freedom to cruise slowly down the paths and monitor the wildlife at a leisurely pace, rather than racing a jumble of jeeps. Other parks include Udawalawe National Park and Wilpattu National Park,  which offer the luxury of taking your time and tracking animals yourself, rather than waiting to hear of the next sighting through the grapevine.

EZ and I booked our safari at Yala before we heard these recommendations, since I had wonderful memories of Yala from my visit 15 years ago, before it became too touristy. But we were in luck. Because our tour was on New Year’s Day, we managed to avoid the crowds; many of the tourists in Sri Lanka were congregated at giant beach parties in Mirissa Beach and elsewhere for New Year’s. Also, Sachika (our guide) mentioned that Yala had recently cracked down on crowds, limiting the number of jeeps that could be in the park at any one time.

So the dirt roads in Yala were relatively empty after all, allowing us to roam at our own pace. And what an incredible experience it was. Beginning with a heavenly sunrise, golden-peach light spreading across the land, á la The Lion King.

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Elephants

Elephants are among my favorite animals, and I couldn’t wait to see them. They’re not exactly an animal that roams wild in the U.S., so there’s an added mystique to these gentle giants. We’d been cruising along, admiring an assortment of graceful birds and curious critters, when Sachika received a tip from one of his driver friends: apparently elephants had been sighted across the field and were coming our way.

Sachika parked the jeep and turned off the motor. We waited in silence for five minutes, then ten, but still—no sign of elephants. Had they changed direction? As our group began to grow restless, Sachika restarted the engine and crept down the road so that we might enjoy the view of some smaller animals. Suddenly, about a half a mile down, Sachika received a call. The elephants had arrived!

He swerved the jeep around and gunned it back to where we’d been waiting before, our hearts racing. One other jeep lay in wait, now. We slowed to a halt. And then, right in front of our window, an elephant emerged from the brush and into the sunlight.

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The elephant began twisting its trunk among the blades of grass below, gripping and tearing bunches from the ground for a tasty snack.

 

I barely had time to register awe when the jeep suddenly crawled forward again. And then I drew in a sharp breath. A mama elephant and her babies grazed beside us. One of the babies nestled into its mother (nursing, perhaps?). Tingles pinwheeled through me; I felt overwhelmed by the sweetness and majesty of these beautiful creatures. So close that if I reached out, I could touch them. And yet, in another sense they were also just a loving family, enjoying lunch together.

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The mama wore a strap around her neck, which Sachika explained meant she was pregnant; the strap allows the park to identify her and ensure she delivers safely.

Later, in another part of the park, we spotted an elephant a bit farther away, joyfully romping through a clearing.

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And then another, indulging in a peaceful bath. This elephant had a clipped tail, which meant that he had lost a fight to a more dominant male elephant. Elephants with clipped tails cannot find mates. And male adult elephants tend to be more solitary creatures to begin with. This elephant, without even the hope of romance, contented himself by submerging himself in the water, drinking and bathing, alone. But he seemed to have accepted his lot in life.

 

Speaking of male elephants, we came upon a rare sight even later in our safari: a tusker. Only 7% of male elephants in Sri Lanka grow tusks, and only 2% of the world’s elephants are tuskers. Part of the problem is poachers, who have long hunted tuskers to seize their tusks for ivory. Awful.

Tuskers can be dangerous, not only because of their sharp tusks, but because they are more prone to anger than regular elephants. According to Sachika, their long history of being hunted may contribute to their more defensive behaviors. So we kept our distance from the tusker, admiring his imposing tusks from afar. The road had been damaged by recent rains anyway, making an approach an even more perilous prospect.

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Even later in the day, when our safari tour was nearly done, we passed the road again. This time it was empty. Empty, that is, except for a lone jeep. Tilted sideways into the ditch. The tipped jeep appeared ominous, like one of those abandoned jeeps in Jurassic Park. What had happened to the passengers? How had the jeep ended up half in the ditch? Why did the guide dare risk such a treacherous road?

Sachika parked our jeep near the start of the road and jumped out, warning us to remain in the jeep. He called out, and another guide emerged from farther down the road. The driver of the collapsed jeep. They spoke together hurriedly, and then Sachika made a few calls.

“That guide, he saw the tusker,” he said to us in a rush. “The passengers wanted to get closer, so he drove too close. Too close. The tusker went mad and attacked the jeep.”

We let out a collective gasp.

“Is everyone ok?” we all asked.

“Yes, damage only to the vehicle. The tusker went away. Another jeep came to take the passengers. But the guide needs help to remove his jeep.”

As he spoke, more jeeps arrived on the scene, more guides hopped out. They all spoke to each other rapidly in fluid Sinhalese while I managed to catch snatches in my broken mental translation: “attack…” “help…” “stuck…”

Then they collected together and walked up to the jeep to help the guide haul it out of the ditch. We, along with the passengers in the other jeeps, watched with fascination as they counted down, then heaved the huge metal contraption. Unfortunately, the driver of the jeep chose that moment to start the engine. The wheels spun in the ditch of puddled water, splashing so much mud onto the group of guides that they dropped the jeep in surprise and jumped back! Their clothes were sprayed in brown.

After some exclamations and curses, the guides regrouped to try again. And then one of them called something out. Before we knew, it, all the guides had dropped the jeep into the ditch once more and were running back toward their own jeeps, screaming.

It was like the scene from a movie. The crowds fleeing Godzilla. Sachika jumped into our jeep and revved up the engine, spinning the vehicle around with expert speed.

“What’s happening?” we managed to ask.

“The tusker is back! It was running toward us!”

As our group sped off, the other jeeps followed in our wake. We craned our necks, trying to spot the tusker in pursuit, but already we had turned a corner. Still, our hearts pumped with adrenaline at the close call. Man vs. Beast.

The Leopard

The leopard is a much sought-after beast. Although the chances of seeing one at Yala is higher than at Sri Lanka’s other safari parks, it remains fairly elusive. So I didn’t get my hopes up when we started the safari. It would be awesome if we saw one, but I knew it was likely we wouldn’t.

In mid-morning, Sachika got a call about a leopard sighting. We raced to the sighting area only to find that the leopard had already disappeared. He had, however, left behind tracks in the dirt.

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Later in the morning, after we’d filled up on the joy and excitement of seeing the adorable family of elephants so close, our jeep meandered through the park, taking in many smaller animals. Then, in an area with a large tree, Sachika stopped. Only one other jeep was stopped near us on this road.

“There,” Sachika said softly. “Do you see?”

He pointed up at the tree. I squinted but didn’t see anything. The tree was so far away.

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“I see it!” exclaimed the Estonian couple. “Here.”

They loaned us their binoculars. I peered through the lenses, focused the eyepieces for a clearer view. And then I saw it. Draped across a branch high up in the tree, lounging. Yellowish with black spots. As I focused even more on its face, the leopard let out a big, lazy yawn.

“Oh my gosh!” I gave the binoculars to EZ as I sat back in amazement. It was such a beautiful beast. Graceful, powerful, yet also indolent in this moment. I felt the tingles again, the swoop of elation.

But try as I might, I couldn’t capture the leopard in a photograph. I didn’t have enough zoom. Oh well, I thought. I saw a gorgeous leopard with my own eyes. I should be content with that.

By now the other jeep had spotted the leopard, too, and the tourists were climbing up on their jeep to get a better view with binoculars. Their guide must have called in the tip, because other jeeps began to arrive on the scene, guides and tourists peering up at the tree.

Once the binoculars made their rounds back to me, I eagerly focused in on the leopard again. With delight, I noted that it was stretching its supple limbs. And then, all of a sudden—

“It jumped!” I shouted.

EZ and the Estonians cried out in surprise.

“Where?” asked Sachika urgently.

“Down, and then it stalked off to the left into the brush,” I said. I lowered the binoculars. “But I can’t see it anymore.”

Sachika was quick, but discreet. He started the engine and drove away, as though there was nothing to see here anymore, which was true enough. But he was driving in the direction that the leopard was headed. We stirred with anticipation.

He turned down a road on a whim, and we caught a flash of yellow through the brush, heading the other direction. Sachika swerved the jeep around toward the crossroad, but by now the other jeeps were on to us. Several other jeeps idled on the road, waiting to see the leopard. We stopped, another jeep blocking our path. And then we caught a glimpse of the leopard crossing the road.

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Such excitement! It seemed everyone in the area collectively held their breaths as it crossed, snapping silent photos where they could. I wished I had a better view, but I was still having a blast. All of us were keyed up and energized to be so near the apex predator, a striking yet dangerous animal.

Once the leopard was out of sight, the other jeeps rolled away, content. But Sachika wasn’t done yet. He swiftly turned the jeep down the road parallel to the direction in which the leopard had walked off. Swift, yet stealthy. No other jeeps were around us, now. It felt like a secret mission. The chase was on, and it was thrilling.

I don’t know how Sachika did it, calculating in his mind the distance the leopard had gone, making a series of educated guesses.

Finally, he parked and cut the engine. Sachika pointed to the left at the meadow of brush where we hoped the leopard lay, then across the street to the right, where a large tree sprawled upward in the middle of a field.

“The leopards sometimes like to sleep in that tree,” he said. “Let’s see if that’s where he’s going.”

We lay in wait like a silent predator anticipating its prey. Five, ten minutes went by, and still no sign of the leopard. And then, a flash of color through the brush.

“Do not shout,” Sachika whispered to us. “Do not point. Don’t be obvious with photos. Or the jeeps will come.”

Far behind us, on the perpendicular road, some jeeps had already appeared. But we listened to Sachika, pretending like there was nothing to see, so that we would not be bombarded by a bevy of loud jeeps at this pivotal moment.

And then the leopard emerged from the brush…and crossed RIGHT IN FRONT OF US. I couldn’t believe it. My heart raced, my breathing quickened. I recorded the moment, but I was also present in the moment, looking not through my lens but right in front of me at the magnificent beast.

The leopard stalked confidently, regally, its muscles rippling, its long tail curled up behind him.

And then, right in the middle of the road, IT STOPPED AND STARED AT US.

 

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In that moment it became clear that we were not the predator lying in wait. The leopard was the true predator, and the look it gave us was a warning: Don’t even think about it.

Then he continued on in his merry way to the other patch of nature, while our group finally unleashed our cries of exhilaration. Sachika called in his tip to his friends. And a swarm of other jeeps materialized behind us just as we started our engine to continue on our own merry way.

Adventure accomplished.

The Menagerie

The elephants and the leopard were the most thrilling animals we spotted on our safari, but we also thoroughly enjoyed the menagerie of other critters we came upon. It felt like the National Geographic channel, live. It’s fascinating to observe these animals going about their lives in a way we don’t often think about.

The wild boars (prey for the leopard), roamed the grassy areas, while their little piglets scurried around, playing with each other. I don’t know why it surprised me, that wild boar piglets played, but that was clearly what they were doing…chasing, prancing, feinting, squealing…and it was glorious.

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The water buffalo, dangerous given their unpredictability, mostly appeared relaxed as they grazed the grass or waded through the water.

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A black-faced langur monkey sat placidly, pregnant, although the foliage obscured her protruding belly. Nearby, her family members perched on branches and scampered around the field

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Near a body of water, a crocodile lay in the weeds, waiting for some unsuspecting prey to cross its path.

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The mongoose is a funny looking critter, kind of cute but also kind of creepy. We saw it dart across the road a few times, but also lurk in the bushes.

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Also darting across the street was the monitor lizard. Another larger monitor lizard sprawled over a tree, basking in the sun.

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Far across a meadow grazed a herd of spotted deer. And, too fleet for a photograph, nimble gazelle zipped through the clearing and into the trees.

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A stately antelope, resting in the grass, held its antlers high and proud.

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The Birds and the Bee-eaters

Yala is home to 215 bird species, six of which are endemic to Sri Lanka. The jungle fowl, one of these six, also happens to be the national bird of Sri Lanka. It looks quite a lot like a rooster, except much more colorful and vibrant. This photo doesn’t really do it justice; not captured is the iridescence of the feathers, and how the colors transition from the bright yellow of the comb, to the cherry red of the wattle, to the golden bronze of the neck, to the coppery tone of the abdomen and back, to the shining coal-tinted midnight-blue bottom and tail feathers that shimmer rainbows in the light.

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Another colorful bird we spotted was the bee-eater. As the name implies, this bird consumes bees, among other insects. With its vivid green plumage, the bee-eater blends in very well with the foliage. Can you find it?

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We caught sight of at least a dozen peacocks during our safari, with several opportunities to watch their flamboyant courtship rituals. Throughout the day, five different male peacocks engaged in the ritual before our eyes. Each male fanned out his spectacular multi-colored feathers (as though flaunting a stylish outfit), flexed his wing muscles (as though pumping iron), shimmied (like he was tearing up the dance floor), and strutted (like he was all that).

And yet, all five of these males were rejected. The female peacocks looked on, relatively indifferent. One might cock her head and watch for a bit, mildly curious at first, then walk away, ultimately nixing the prospect. The peacock dating world is tough! Maybe the dudes were coming on too strong?

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Unimpressed.

 

Better luck next time, buddy.

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Another cool sight was the sea eagle, perched up in the tree near its nest. The sea eagle struck me as a dignified bird, similar to the bald eagle.

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Pecking along the grass, we found some lovely ibis, with their white feathers and long-billed black heads.

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Near the water frolicked pelicans, colorful maribou, and spoonbills. And of course, there were countless other beautiful birds who didn’t stick around long enough to be identified.

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The Landscapes

The beauteous beasts and birds aren’t the only sights to see in Yala. In addition to the scrub jungle, the park contains some beautiful water-centered habitats. Including some unique ones, given the location near the ocean.

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The Takeaway

Our safari in the wild was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

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I can’t even begin to describe my sheer delight in all the natural beauty surrounding us, my awe at the majestic beasts and strange critters, my thrill in seeking and discovering the elusive leopard, and my childlike curiosity in observing all the animals out free in nature, wandering, eating, sleeping, bathing, playing, courting, mating, caring for their young, LIVING. Surprises around every corner and boundless joy through it all…just magical.

And when EZ and I returned to our hotel, imagine our shock in finding an elephant roaming the grounds below our balcony! A reminder of just how close the wild can be to civilization…

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We definitely started the new year off right—with an unforgettable adventure and a prescient reminder at just how stunning our planet is, and how it is our duty as humans to preserve and protect it, for ourselves and for our animal friends who count on us.

Luckily, Sri Lanka’s beauty didn’t stop with Yala. In fact, the natural splendor only intensified on our next stop, Ella.


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