Yala, Sri Lanka: Home to the Best Leopard Spotting on the Planet!

Yala National Park in Sri Lanka has the highest population density of leopards in the world!  If you want to see a leopard, there is no better place!

Adventure Travel - Leopard seen at Yala, Sri Lanka

Yala is Sri Lanka’s most visited national park.  Ironically, it previously served as hunting grounds for the British elite.  The park is divided into five blocks, some of which are not easily accessible to visitors.  The most popular one is Block One which is home to approximately 40 leopards!

While Yala is known for its leopards, it’s also worth noting that there are 44 species of mammals (including elephants) and an incredible 215 bird species!  Wildlife tip:  Appreciate what you see!  Your chances of seeing a leopard are good, but they are wild animals, so it’s also possible that you won’t see one. So many people are focused on only seeing a leopard that they get blasé about what would otherwise be considered really incredible animal sightings. Watch for an upcoming post about the other wildlife you can see in Yala!

But for now, I’m going to focus solely on the leopards, because I can see you saying, Yeah, yeah, I know, there’s other wildlife, but tell me about the leopards and how likely I am to see one!

Leopards eluded me on my previous four trips to Africa!  On three separate occasions I had seen fresh leopard tracks, and once even minutes old poop, but no leopard!  The most frustrating experience was at Tembe Elephant Park in South Africa, where we kept spotting fresh tracks on the road, that would disappear into the bush, then reappear again.  This went on for over 90 minutes! It seemed as if the leopard was playing a game of cat and mouse – and one that he clearly won!

When trying to decide which national parks to visit in Sri Lanka, I choose Yala for one reason:  leopards!  I hoped that on a new continent, they would not continue to elude me and be into playing games!

I went to Yala National Park three times and incredibly saw leopards every single time! I saw one leopard the first time, three leopards (a mother and her cubs) the second time and two leopards the third time! My luck was truly incredible! Dave and Deb from The Planet D were also fortunate enough to spot a leopard in Yala, while Sherry from Otts World, had no such luck with leopards, not seeing any unfortunately. That’s why I recommend more than one visit to Yala, it will significantly increase your chances of spotting a leopard and other wildlife.

I will admit that the first sighting was far away. Even with our guide pointing him out to me in the tree approximately 30 meters away, it still took me about 10 minutes before I could find it.  Here’s what he looked like:

leopard in a tree at Yala, Sri Lanka

1st leopard sighting

…and that’s with a zoom lense!

My second time in Yala, I was visiting with Leopard Trails, and got closer, approximately 15 meters away.  Our jeep was fortunate enough to grab a good position and while I didn’t get a photo of the mother and both of her cubs, I did get one of the cubs who was moving around a bit through the bush and came out just long enough for me to get these photos:

Leopard cub at Yala, Sri Lanka

Second leopard spotting at Yala, a cub ~18 months old.

Leopard cub at Yala National Park in Sri Lanka

My third time also with Leopard Trails was a matter of being in the right place at the right time.  We got a call about a leopard sighting and fortunately we were just a few meters away.  The leopard cub was in a tree just a few meters from the road and we were one of the first jeeps to arrive.  Despite being so close, he was still difficult to see as he was so well hidden by the leaves:

Leopard hiding in a tree at Yala, Sri Lanka

Despite him just being a few meters away, the leopard was difficult to see.

Leopard hanging out in a tree at Yala National Park, Sri Lanka
A few of the jeep drivers got excited and pulled in closer and closer to give their guests a better viewing opportunity. This agitated the poor leopard, who then  decided to seek out solace, which meant he had to climb down the tree and crossed the road several meters from our jeep as he did so to meet up with his mother!  This resulted in a leopard viewing of a lifetime:

Leopard at Yala.

Leopard at Yala National Park, located in southeastern Sri Lanka.

Yala has the highest population density of leopard in the world!
Leopard cub going toward his sibling and mother after hanging out in a tree at Yala.
Leopard crossing the road at Yala National Park, which has the highest leopard density in the world!

Leopard crossing the road at Yala.

The last glance of the leopard before he disappeared into the thick brush.

Having said that, I felt and still feel badly for the leopard.  Our guide Jerome sadly shook his head and said; In 10 years it will be virtually impossible to see a leopard in Yala, we will have scared them all away.  Unfortunately, I have to agree with him.  I loved my time in Yala, but was very disappointed to see how little respect some of the drivers had for wildlife by getting too close or revving their engines. And it’s not just one or two jeeps, there are dozens of them, resulting in jeep jams along the road. I  get that everyone wants to see a leopard, I know I certainly did, but not at the leopard’s expense where we are interfering with their natural behaviour.  Had all the jeeps stayed a few meters further back on the road, it’s likely the leopard would have stayed undisturbed in his tree. Given the choice, I would have gladly sacrificed my photo opportunity for the wellbeing of the leopard.

Jeeps at Yala, with everyone hoping to catch a glimpse of a leopard.

Everyone trying to get a glimpse of the leopard, which ultimately scared him off, when some jeeps got too close.

That’s why I strongly believe it’s crucial to visit Yala with a reputable company like Leopard Trails that employ experienced eco-minded guides like Jerome, who will let the drivers know if they are getting too close. It’s easy to put all the blame on the Sri Lankans and say they need better trained drivers and to have enforced guidelines about how close a jeep is allowed to get to wildlife, or limit the number of jeeps allowed in the park at one time.  While these certainly may be part of the solution, eco-tourists also have to take some responsibility. The drivers and guides are catering to our needs as tourists advise the guides Closer, closer, I can’t see around the other jeeps, and I want a better photo.  I must have heard some variation of this a hundred times, and more often than not, the driver would comply if they could, knowing that they may get a better tip for doing so.  

Instead, we need to think about what’s best for the animal, and  not for our photo opp, perhaps asking the driver to back off a bit to give the animal room. Tourism is just returning to Sri Lanka after a long civil war and there’s much to be learned from both sides, and as eco-tourists we also have a responsibility.  It’s in the best interest of wildlife and Sri Lankans if  can ensure that future generations will can have the same incredible leopard spotting opportunities that I had, which was honestly one of the most AAAAMAZING wildlife encounters I have ever had!

Know Before You Go Leopard Spotting in Yala National Park:

  • If at all possible, go more than once.  I went once with another safari company and twice with Leopard Trails who provides two safaris each day for their guests as part of their luxury tented safari experience. This will greatly increase your chances of seeing a leopard at least once, plus every time you go you see something different.
  • Go with a reputable company that emphasizes the animal’s welfare over a great photo opportunity.  It’s possible to balance the two.
  • Appreciate whatever you see in Yala…even if it’s not a leopard.  It truly is an ecologically diverse park with so much to see.
  • While you will have the best chances of seeing a leopard in Block One, if you find that it’s too crowded, you can also arrange for safari jeeps in other blocks, but you will need to arrange this ahead of time.

 

Note:  Two of my  trips to Yala were made possible by Leopard Trails.  As always, all opinions expressed are my own.

Laurel Robbins is the founder of Monkeys and Mountains, an adventure travel blog and company that helps people plan their active holidays in a sustainable way. Although Canadian, she lives in Germany. You can find her in the mountains on most weekends.
Yala National Park in Sri Lanka is an incredible travel destination for wildlife lovers hoping to spot spot a leopard in the wild.
2017-09-29T16:36:56+00:00

22 Comments

  1. Radheesh Sellamuttu January 18, 2015 at 4:10 pm - Reply

    Hi Laurel,

    I just read this and the other blog post you did on your experience at Leopard Trails Yala camp. Thank you for your kind words and great to hear that Jerome kept you entertained! One correction though, with regards to the leopard population stated on this article. There are well over 20 leopards in block 1. We have identified 40+ in a section of block 1. Likewise for Wilpattu. Hope to have you back some day!

    Best, Radheesh – Leopard Trails

    • Laurel January 18, 2015 at 5:22 pm - Reply

      @Radeesh, I thoroughly enjoyed my experience with Leopard Trails. Thanks for the info regarding the number of leopards, I’ve now made the change! Would love to come back and experience Wilpattu! Thank you for your message.

  2. Grace @ Green Global Travel January 19, 2015 at 8:29 pm - Reply

    Amazing photos! It sounds like a great experience, but it’s a shame that the jeeps were getting too close to the leopards. You are absolutely right about tourists needing to start taking responsibility as well!

  3. Oksana | Drink Tea and Travel January 21, 2015 at 2:39 am - Reply

    Oh how lucky of you to spot so many of them! I loved my visit to Yala, but we weren’t lucky enough to see a leopard. We heard of a spotting while we were on the tour but by the time we had arrived at the location the leopard, scared away by the revving jeeps, had already disappeared into the bushes, I had the same hesitations about the tour companies at Yala, Too many of them disregard the needs of animals and just care about the tourists 🙁

    • Laurel February 2, 2015 at 7:36 pm - Reply

      @Oksana – Sorry to hear that you missed seeing a leopard, but those jeeps can be really noisy. Glad you enjoyed your time though and I really hope there are changes to how tourism is done in Yala.

  4. warshan January 27, 2015 at 4:00 am - Reply

    Visit sri lanka it’s a really amazing place to see in your life time
    Nice collection keep it up. hope you will visit sri lanka again (Y)

    • Laurel February 2, 2015 at 7:31 pm - Reply

      @Warshan – Thank you and I hope I get to visit again too!

  5. Dani February 8, 2015 at 10:59 am - Reply

    Wow, that was an amazing leopard sighting!! I am so jealous, Laurel 😉 I agree with your recommendation to visit the park twice, btw. I was much luckier with wildlife sightings the second time I went. Also agree with the behavior of some of the jeep drivers. They went completely nuts when a sighting was reported somewhere and everyone was speeding down the roads to get there, trying to get as close as possible.. it was a bit too much. Overall though I loved Yala and would recommend it to anyone who loves animals and nature.

    • Laurel August 10, 2015 at 7:01 pm - Reply

      @Dani So glad that you had better luck on your second time and that you enjoyed Yala – now if we can just get the jeep drivers to slow down and be more respectful to the animals!

  6. india tours October 17, 2015 at 5:46 am - Reply

    i m very happy to see leopard in Sri Lanka wildlife .

  7. Pamela staley March 3, 2016 at 4:08 pm - Reply

    I did not rate leopard trails as a safari company as the guides seemed more interested in taking their own photographs than pointing out the exact location of any wildlife to guests. On the one occasion in 6 safaris that a leopard was noted although our vehicle was second on the scene the driver placed the vehicle in such a poor position that many other vehicles that arrived later stopped between our vehicle and the leopard and totally blocked our view. This has never occurred in Africa, several countries visited, or in the Pantanal, Brazil whilst searching for Jaguars!
    The fan was too small to cool the tent, the electrics were a shambles and there was no hot water for the apology that leopard trails call a shower. The only redeeming feature was the food but it was the wildlife viewing that we paid for so not much of a consolation.
    Finally, there was nothing to do between drives and it was not of the standard we expect from companies offering safaris. A great pity as we will not be going to Sri Lanka again but will stick to Africa as have seen a leopard in Namibia and in Botswana.

    • Laurel August 14, 2016 at 7:01 pm - Reply

      @Pamela – Sorry to hear that you had such a negative experience. I agree that wildlife watching is done more respectfully in Africa than it is at Yala, and I’m really hoping that Yala implements some enforceable policies that consider the leopards’ welfare.

  8. Laura April 17, 2016 at 2:22 pm - Reply

    This site has such helpful information. Didn’t know about the Elephant orphanages being so cruel! Are there ANY genuine ?
    Would love to see a Leopard in its natural environment . Do you recommend any other particular Jeep companies for Yala and other national parks to use who are respectful of the animals? have already booked two nights in Habarana & two nights in Yala as part of our Sri Lanka trip. So not booked with Leopard trails.

    • Laurel April 26, 2016 at 9:04 pm - Reply

      @Laura So glad it’s useful. There’s one that’s better than they others, but still not great, from what I’ve heard. I highly recommend Ayu in the Wild. If you’re interested, let me know and I can put you in direct contact with the owner. She’s a lovely woman and very respectful of the animals.

  9. Jamie May 11, 2016 at 8:04 pm - Reply

    Laurel, is it recommend to go in the afternoon or the early morning to potentially increase your chances of spotting these often elusive leopards?

    • Laurel May 12, 2016 at 1:40 pm - Reply

      @Jamie – I spotted them both in the morning and the afternoon, although if it’s hot outside, they may be more difficult to see, as they’re more likely to be sleeping in a tree.

  10. David October 29, 2016 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    Wow. That looks incredible. I saw a few leopards in South Africa earlier this year, and will visit Sri Lanka in January 2017. I hope I can see one, although I would be very disturbed if the drivers were behaving inappropriately. In the end, the most important thing is to know that the animals exist there in peace.

    • Laurel October 31, 2016 at 10:31 am - Reply

      @David – Lucky you, I’ve never seen a leopard in Africa, which is why I was thrilled to see them in Sri Lanka. I hope the driver situation has changed since I was in Sri Lanka, as they were definitely disturbing the leopards when I was there.

  11. Arshad Nihaz October 31, 2016 at 11:10 am - Reply

    @David – Please do get in touch with us to arrange a wonderful safari experience on your visit to Sri Lanka. You can contact me on info@leopardtrails.com or text 0094777800030.
    Look forward to hearing from you.
    Kind regards.
    Arshad Nihaz

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