This 357-sq-km park, once known as Yala East, is much less frequently visited than its busy neighbour, Yala National Park. Consequently, it's a far less zoo-like experience and it never feels too crowded here, even during high season. Yes, the density of animals is lower, but it’s not rare to spot a leopard, along with elephants, crocodiles, turtles, white cobras, wild buffalo and tons of birds. About a dozen bears live in the park, but they’re rarely seen.
The park’s best-known feature is the 200-hectare Kumana bird reserve, an ornithologically rich mangrove swamp 22km beyond Okanda. May to June is nesting season. There have been sightings of Sri Lanka’s very rare black-necked stork, but more commonly spotted, even outside the bird reserve, are Malabar pied hornbills, green bee-eaters, blade-headed orioles and painted storks, among others. Watchtowers provide a terrific perspective for viewers, and even a newcomer to bird watching can expect to sight around 50 species of birds in an outing. A pair of binoculars and a field guide to birds greatly enhances the experience.
Tickets and other practicalities
Enter the park through the main gate near Okanda, 22km south-west of Arugam Bay. Most people arrange a jeep and driver through guesthouses in Arugam Bay (around Rs 10,000 per vehicle for a 3½-hour trip including park fees). These leave before dawn to catch the dawn chorus or at 2pm to make the most of the golden dusk. This is when the landscape is at its most photogenic and nocturnal animals start to pace out from their daytime lairs.
It's possible to arrange a jeep from the park office, just inside the entrance. Entry fees are complicated, but include a mandatory guide (who may not speak English but is usually an expert spotter), and cover service and VAT. That said, a discretionary tip for both guide and driver for good sighting is customary. All in all, this DIY approach may be a slightly cheaper option, but in high season jeep availability may not be guaranteed and in low season it does entail some waiting around. There are some modest exhibits at the entrance to while away the time or it's possible to watch birds from the lagoon hide while a driver is summoned from nearby Panama (about 30 minutes or so).
Unless travelling on an all-fees-included tour, expect to pay around US$10/5 per adult/child, Rs 250 for vehicle hire and a service charge per group of US$8, plus overall VAT of 8%. We did say it was complicated.