Yala National Park is Jungle Book come to life, especially when face-to-face with a magnificent, full-grown male leopard. Unblinking amber eyes, tail slowly twitching as he tests the air, dappled black-and-sand pelt merging with the forest as the last rays of the evening sun send shadows reaching across the plain.
You are close enough to hear his soft, coughing chuff; close enough to see the scars on his face from encounters with other males as he patrols the frontiers of his territory; and close enough to know that you yourself are at the frontier of your territory, your urban comfort zone. You are experiencing nature in the wild. This is real.
Your safari guide will have warned you: do not leave the vehicle. Although Yala National Park leopards are habituated to people, they are still wild and perfectly at home in their natural habitat. You are not. This is not Jungle Book. That magnificent leopard is not Mowgli’s amiable best friend, he is Sri Lanka’s untamed top cat, king of the jungle.
Take his picture, imprint that primal magnificence forever in your mind’s eye, make him a lifetime memory. But never forget that seeing him like this is a privilege, and treat him with the respect he deserves.
That goes for the extraordinary diversity of other wildlife you will encounter at Yala. This 979 sq km (378 sq mile) sanctuary is home to 44 species of mammals, from the mighty Asian elephant, sloth bear and wild water buffalo to macaque monkey, golden palm civet, red slender loris and ever-elusive nocturnal fishing cat.
Meanwhile, the park’s 215 bird species, including 90 wetland and waterfowl, plus Sri Lanka’s two prime feathered raptors, the crested serpent eagle and white-bellied sea eagle, make this unique wildlife haven a must-visit destination on anyone’s tour itinerary.