Yala National Park is the most visited and 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 civilisations. 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.
The Yala area is mostly composed of metamorphic rock belonging to the Precambrian era and classified into two series, Vijayan series and Highland series. Reddish brown soil and low humic grey soil are prominent among six soil types. Yala is situated in the lowest peneplain of Sri Lanka, which extends from Trincomalee to Hambantota. Topographically the area is a flat and mildly undulating plain that runs to the coast with elevation is 30 metres (98 ft) close to the coast while rising in the interior to 100–125 metres (330–410 ft).
The national park is situated in the dry semi-arid climatic region and rain is received mainly during the northeast monsoon. The mean annual rainfall ranges between 500–775 millimetres (20–30.5 in) while the mean temperature ranges between 26.4 °C (79.5 °F) in January to 30 °C (86 °F) in April. It is windier in Yala, during the southwest monsoon compared to the wind during the northeast monsoon with wind speeds from 23 kilometres per hour (14 mph) to 15 kilometres per hour (9.3 mph).
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 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.
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.
Yala had been a center of past civilisations. The great King Ravana established his kingdom here with Ravana Kotte, now submerged in the sea, as its boundary. Seafaring traders brought Indo-Aryan civilisation with them, as Yala is situated in their trading route. A large number of ancient although disrepaired tanks are the evidence of a rich hydraulic and agricultural civilisation dating back to 5th century BC.
Situlpahuwa, which was the home for 12,000 arahants, is situated within the park area along with Magul Vihara, which built in 87 BC and Akasa Chaitiya, which constructed in 2nd century BC. Agriculture flourished in area during the period of Ruhuna Kingdom. According to Mahavamsa, the Kingdom of Ruhuna began to decline by the end of the 13th Century AD. During the colonial period Yala became a popular hunting ground. Yala is annually visited by 400,000 pilgrims.
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. Note that the Situlpahuwa pilgrimage site, geographically in Block III, has kind of an 'enclave' status and is accessible FOC through separate roads from Tissa and Kataragama.
Most of the visitors stated that reasons for their visit is to see wild animals, and elephant is the most preferred animal. The visitors like to see bears, leopards, birds as well. In 2000 the income from visitors including lodge fees was approximately US$468,629. Due to security conditions revenue was lost. The Yala National Park has been susceptible to terrorist attacks. On 17 October 2007 a group of LTTE cadres attacked an army detachment in Thalgasmankada in the park.