Yala National Park: Location, Access, and Facilities
Yala National Park is geographically located in Sri Lanka at latitude 06°16' - 06°42' North and longitude 81°15' - 81°42' East. The Park can be visited via the town of Tissamaharama in the Hambantota District of the Southern Province.
While Block I has good access roads, access to Blocks II and III is limited mainly to dry weather. There are eight Park bungalows all of which are within Yala Block I. Another has been constructed at Katagamuwa Sanctuary, and one more is now ready for occupation in Yala Block IV. Accommodation is available for 8-10 people in each bungalow on the basis of prior reservations with the Department of Wildlife Conservation. Apart from resident visitors occupying the bungalows, a large number of day visitors enter the Park.
The Block I boundaries of the Park, take in 19 kilometers of sea coast in the southeast from Amaduwa to Yala, 19 kilometers from Yala up the Menik Ganga to Pahalahentota, 19 kilometers from Pahalahentota to Bambawa, and 3 kilometers from Bambawa to Palatupana.
"The earliest epigraphic "Brahmi" inscriptions discovered in Sri Lanka and in this region date back to the 2nd century B.C. Prior to this the Indo-Aryan settlers from Northern India as represented,in the legend of Vijaya, were well established and in full control of the area. Edifices of the earliest Buddhist cave monastery type began to be constructed wherever there was human habitation and in suitable rock outcrops, of which there are many in the area. There are to this day innumerable and very interesting remains of cave dwellings from the pre-Christian era."
This region was part of the Rohana (Ruhuna) Kingdom, having an advanced civilization as evinced by remains of dagabas and ancient artificial reservoirs (tanks), built by clever hydrological engineers, to irrigate large extents of cultivable land.
After the 10th century, historical evidence draws attention to the absence of inscriptions later than the 10th century A.D. "Architectural and sculptural remains of the medieval period are absent. It would appear to be a justifiable inference that some sudden de-population of the region occurred. The ancient chronicles supply no information whatsoever and the jungle tide spread covering the past with a mantle of secondary forest. These have matured to the climax stands seen in Yala today.
The Modern Era
At the turn of the century Yala Block I was declared a Game Sanctuary. A small area west of the Sanctuary was set aside in which resident sportsman might shoot. The main force behind this decision was the Game Protection Society (now the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society) founded in 1894 by the plantation owners, executives of firms, sportsmen and amateur naturalists favouring the conservation of wildlife. Records denote that the first Game Ranger of the Sanctuary was H.H. Engelbrecht, an Afrikaaner and a Boer prisoner of war who was not returned to South Africa on account of his refusal to swear allegiance to the British monarchy.
After his release Engelbrecht came to the nearby coastal town of Hambantota. Being on his own on foreign soil, he found life hard. The Government Agent of the district however, took pity on Engelbrecht and made him the custodian of the Game Sanctuary around 1908. With his experience of wildlife on the veldt, the post suited him admirably. He administered the region fearlessly and with courage, using his whip to punish any miscreants. Many are the tales of his daring and prowess with the gun. However, his German ancestry proved to be his undoing. He was falsely accused during the First World War (1914-1918), of supplying meat to a German warship, the "Emden", and was taken into custody. After the war, he was released and once again returned to Hambantota where he died in poverty. Long after his death, it was proved that he was innocent of the accusation.
Being located in one of the arid regions of Sri Lanka, the climate of Ruhuna National Park is usually hot and dry. The area receives its annual rainfall during the north east monsoon from November to January, and unpredictable inter-monsoonal rains in March/April and September. February is a dry month, with the dry season proper commencing in June and lasting until September and sometimes until mid October.
The mean annual temperature near sea level is 270C, although in the dry season a daily maximum of 370C is not uncommon.
"Most of the area is underlain by Vijayan rocks formed over 600 million years ago. Rock outcrops or inselbergs stand out of a relatively flat plain, looming to heights of up to 800ft. They are made up of migmatites, hornblende, and granite gneisses. Pleistocene and Holocene alluvial and aeolian deposits cover the Vijayan series near the Menik ganga and along most of the coast line."
The Menik Ganga is now a seasonal river, since its damming for irrigation purposes higher up, as far back as 1878. There are four other seasonal "aras" or streamlets carrying water during the rainy season.
The breached and denuded earth bunds of several irrigation tanks are still visible, together with natural water holes and tanks (wewa), improved to hold water. These sources of water are a link in the survival of the wildlife found within the area.
Amongst the rock ridges and monoliths are several natural rock pools that have a charm of their own. Some contain water throughout the year, and have their own development of water plants and fauna.
In the southeast, the Park is bounded by the sea. The many bays carve out an intricate mosaic. Unspoilt natural beaches and sand dunes provide a beautiful environment of undulating and shifting sands. This is surely one of the most spectacular seascapes of Sri Lanka. Far out at sea are two lighthouses, Great and Little Basses, which stand on two submerged ridges by those names and beam a red and white light respectively at night.
Lagoons fringe this part of the coastline, each lined with mangroves and filled with brackish water. The extensive parklands that surround these lagoons offer visitors superb locations for viewing animals and bird life.
Fauna International Guide to the Ruhunu (Yala) National Park
text by Childers Jayawardhana, former Warden, Yala National Park