Tiger Versus Lion

tiger vs lion

Historically, the comparative merits of the tiger versus the lion have been a popular topic of discussion by hunters, naturalists, artists and poets, and it continues to inspire the popular imagination in the present day. Lions and tigers have competed in the wild where their ranges have overlapped. They have also been pitted against each other in captivity, either as deliberate contests or as a result of accidental encounters.

In the circuses of Ancient Rome, exotic beasts were commonly pitted against each other. The contest of the lion against the tiger was a classic pairing and the betting usually favored the tiger. A tiger that belonged to the King of Oude in India killed thirty lions, and destroyed another after being transferred to the zoological garden in London.

Lions and tigers coexisted in central India until the late 19th century and some accounts of contests were recorded. The University of Minnesota’s Lion Research Project describes the resulting findings as unclear: the lions were hunted more than tigers due to them preferring plain land in consequence of which they now only live in Gir Forest where no tiger is to be found. The possibility of conflicts between the two has been raised in relation to the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction Project, which would introduce Gir Lions (Asiatic lions) from Gir Forest National Park to another preserve, the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, that contains tigers. Concerns were raised that the co-presence of lions and tigers would ‘trigger frequent clashes.’ One argument against the lions shifting is that Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary also houses tigers. The tigers, being stronger and larger than the lions, are a potential threat for survival of lions.

The Amur or Siberian tiger is the largest subspecies of the Panthera genus, known to weigh up to 360 kilograms (800 lb), while large African lions weigh up to 250 kilograms (550 lb). The average weight of males is 175 kilograms (390 lb) for the Asiatic lion, 200 kilograms (440 lb) for the African lion, 221.2 kilograms (488 lb) for the Bengal tiger and 230 kilograms (510 lb) for the Siberian tiger.

The tiger is a solitary hunter while the lion is a social animal, living and hunting in groups called prides. Though lions cooperate in hunting, the pride is very competitive during feeding. Weaker animals are pushed aside or chased off. The competitive nature of this social structure makes the lion more prone to fighting, especially males whose very lives depend (since the male isn’t as specialized in hunting on the open plains) on getting a pride of their own. The tiger is very quick so keepers of captive tigers must take care to avoid a sudden attack.

The most recent account of a fight in captivity is from 2011, where a tiger at the Ankara Zoo in Turkey attacked a lion through its enclosure and killed the lion with a single paw swipe. ‘The tiger severed the lion’s jugular vein in a single stroke with its paw, leaving the animal dying in a pool of blood,’ officials said. However, lions have killed tigers in captivity as well. In 2008 a 110 kg lion killed a 90 kg Siberian tigress in a Korean zoo by biting it in the neck. In 1951 an African lion killed a much smaller Bengal tiger at a circus. The lion attacked the tiger and sank its jaws into the tiger’s back. The tiger died an hour after the fight because of the injuries sustained. Earlier incidents include the death of a male lion at the jaws of a male tiger at the Coney Island Zoo in 1909, and in 1857, a tiger at the Bromwich Zoo broke into the cage of a lion and a fearful scene ensued: the lion’s mane saved his head and neck from being injured, but the tiger succeeded in ripping up his stomach, and within a few minutes he was dead.

John Smith Clarke, a British lion tamer, said in a lecture on the fight between a tiger and a lion given to the Glasgow Zoological Society while showing the actual fight on the screen, ‘in 100 cases out of 100 the tiger would always beat the lion. It was far more agile, it was not so clumsy in its moments, it was equally strong, it was equally armed, but it fought in a different way. The tiger very often fought rolling on its back and held the lion in its grip until it defeated him.’

18th-century naturalists and authors compared the species’ characters, generally in favor of the lion. Oliver Goldsmith ranked the lion first among carnivorous mammals, followed by the tiger, which in his view ‘…seems to partake of all the noxious qualities of the lion, without sharing any of his good ones. To pride, courage and strength, the lion joins greatness, clemency and generosity; but the tiger is fierce without provocation, and cruel without necessity.’ Charles Knight, writing in ‘The English Cyclopaedia,’ disparages the opinions of naturalists Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon and Thomas Pennant in this context, stating that ‘…the general herd of authors who eulogise the ‘courage, greatness, clemency and generosity’ of the lion, contrasting it with the unprovoked ferocity, unnecessary cruelty and poltroonery of the tiger, becomes ridiculous, though led by such names as Buffon and Pennant.’ Knight goes on to write that ‘The lion has owed a good deal to his mane and his noble and dignified aspect; but appearances are not always to be trusted.’ In fact, a study was done by scientists Craig Packer and Peyton West which has claimed that the mane of the lion is strictly for mating purposes. Darker-maned lions were more often picked by females to breed, while light-maned lions weren’t so lucky. This may prove that a lion’s mane does not purposely help in a fight, and might even hinder the male lion, slowing it down when it attacks.

Battles between the two were painted in the 18th and 19th centuries by Eugène Delacroix, George Stubbs, and James Ward. Ward’s paintings, which portrayed lion victories in accordance with the lion’s symbolic value in Great Britain, have been described as less realistic than Stubbs’. The British Seringapatam medal shows a lion defeating a tiger in battle; an Arabic language banner on the medal displays the words ‘ASAD ALLAH AL-GHALIB’ (the lion of God is the conqueror). The medal commemorated the British victory at the 1799 Battle of Seringapatam (in the town now known as Srirangapatna) over Tipu Sultan—who used tigers as emblems, as opposed to the British emblematic use of lions.


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