The outcome of a fight between lion and tiger would depend heavily on the individuals–their age, breed, mood, fighting style, and physiology. However, historical evidence suggests that tigers are a bit more likely to win the duel.
If I ask you who is King of the Jungle, what would you say? If you were a lion, you would reply with unremitting confidence, and that’s what all of us have been taught since our childhood: “The lion is the king of the jungle”.
So, is the majesty of the lion unmatched? Are there no other contenders for such a claim over the wild kingdom? Well, it may sound iconoclastic, but the lion is not really the undeniable king of the jungle. Its cousin—the tiger—is arguably more ferocious and powerful. So, who is the real king between them? We’ll try to find answers to this question from both a historical and scientific perspective.
When it comes to animals in the wild, lions and tigers are two of the most intimidating predators on the planet. They are infamous for preying even on humans. So, before we get into the riveting rivalry of these two super cats, let’s first take a look at them individually.
Tigers are one of the largest land predators and generally outsize lions. Unfortunately, the population of tigers has shrunk over time due to unabated poaching, and they are now found in only select tropical deciduous forests in Asia. The beautiful stripes on each tiger are unique and serve as identifiers for tigers, similar to our fingerprints!
Tigers are solitary creatures who hunt and live most of their lives alone. They are also bestowed with a powerful, muscular body that is extremely agile and flexible. Tigers have excellent eyesight and are capable of seeing their prey even in the dark.
Another remarkable quality about tigers is that they can easily climb trees and swiftly swim even in fast-flowing rivers. Tigers are known to eat fish, tortoise, and even alligators in the wild! Tigers are competent predators who are well adapted to deal with diverse ecosystems, from swimming in lakes to climbing on trees. They can hunt their prey in broad daylight or seize victims in an ambush in the dark.
Lions are prodigious cats found on two continents: Asia and Africa. What’s striking about male lions is their distinctive thick and majestic manes around their neck.
In contrast to the lifestyle of tigers, lions are much social. They live in families called prides. Prides generally consist of one or two adult male lions with five to seven lionesses and their cubs. Male lions spend their lives defending their pride and protecting against hostile takeovers by other vagrant lions. Interestingly, lionesses are the ones who actively go out for hunting, while male lions come into the picture only when the need arises—like putting down a big mammal, such as a giraffe or a buffalo.
Lion prides manifest great teamwork. Each member of the pride knows their role in hunting and other expeditions. Some go after the prey, while others surround the prey so it cannot escape. The role of an adult male is more to intimidate and defeat the very largest prey. For example, while hunting a zebra or a giraffe, a male lion would growl at the prey and drive them in a certain direction where lionesses are waiting in ambush.
It must be remembered that lions are fighters from birth. They spend most of their lives protecting their pride, which involves battling out any contender who attempts to take over of the pride. Such frequent clashes make male lions experienced and fearsome fighters. Another intimidating aspect of lions is their terrifying roars, which can be heard up to a few miles away!
Now that you know a bit about these mighty cats, let’s do a more quantitative comparison of these two masters of the wild.
Comparison of lion and tiger
- Body size: Although the size of both cats varies with the type of their species, a large adult Siberian tiger can reach over 10 feet in length. A full-grown African lion, on the other hand, can grow up to 9 feet in length. A mature Siberian tiger can easily weigh over 600 pounds, whereas an adult African lion generally weighs under 500 pounds. Roughly speaking, a tiger is 15-20% bigger than a lion.
- Bite force: Although both lions and tiger have around 30 teeth, tigers have longer and sharper pairs of fangs that can inflict a deeper wound on their opponents. Fangs of the tiger are around 4 inches, whereas lion teeth are approximately 3 inches in size. Thus, the bite force of a tiger is greater than that of a lion.
- Brain size: Tigers have been found to have larger brains than lions, relative to their body size.
- Mane: Male lions possess distinctive manes around their neck. Many experts believe that this mane confers a significant advantage to lions in a battle, as an opponent cannot easily access the carotid artery or cervical vertebra. Tigers do not have any such covering and are therefore more vulnerable from assault by an opponent in that area of the body.
Do lions and tigers crossover in a natural habitat?
Lion and tiger species generally do not cohabit in the same provinces, but there are places in India where lions and tigers cross paths, although they do not share common territory like they did in the past. Because of unabated poaching, the population of tigers has shrunk significantly and they are now found only in select places.
Colin Tulidge, a renowned biologist and science writer, posits that since lions and tigers both like to go after big herbivores, there is a likelihood that these two species were rivals for prey in the past when tiger and lion populations were in abundance.
There were efforts in the past (and still ongoing) to co-locate lions and tigers in the same habitat. For example, during colonial rule in India, the Maharaja of Gwalior (prince of the state) tried to relocate a few African lions into the Kuno Palpur sanctuary where tigers resided. This project wasn’t successful, as some cubs died in transit from Africa to India. Those who survived were later found dead. Some suspect that tigers killed those lions, while others claim that locals killed the lions, as they had turned into man-eaters after their arrival.
The government of India has proposed the Asiatic Lion Reintroduction project to reintroduce rapidly depleting Asiatic lions from the Gir forest to other regions, including sanctuaries where tigers reside. This project has been met with several hurdles with the Gujarat state government (where Gir forest is located), which staunchly opposes the relocation of lions. One of the reasons cited for this refusal was the fear that the tigers would kill the incoming lions!
That section explored the natural interaction of lions and tigers, but now let’s now look at some of the famous fights between the two cats in captivity and the results of their bloody battles.
Famous lion vs tiger fights
The battle between lions and tigers has always piqued the interest of humanity. Be it hunters, naturalists, historians, or even science writers like us!
In ancient Rome, lions and tigers were often pitted against each other in arenas for the purposes of cruel entertainment. To attract the attention of the plebeians of that time, Roman emperors used to organize fights between African lions and Asian tigers in the coliseum. Though the battles used to be fierce, tigers were typically victorious, killing the lions more often than not.
One of the most famous tigers, who is reported to have defeated around 30 lions in different encounters, was a Bengal tiger called Gunga. Gunga was a tiger owned by the emperor of Awadh in India, who transferred this ferocious tiger to a zoological garden in London. Some people claim that this mighty tiger could defeat a lion in just 10 minutes!
Gunga also called Nina Saheb, has one famous tale of bravery. Harper’s Weekly in 1859 had reported that, in captivity in London, prior to one of those lion-tiger fights, the tiger had an encounter with the keeper. For some reason, Gunga attacked the keeper. In his defense, the keeper injured the tiger with a crowbar, blinding this ferocious beast in one eye. A fight was staged after this incident, so legend has it that the tiger was partially blinded before its epic duel with the lion.
As the fight began, the tiger aggressively attacked the lion and their fight continued for some time before the tiger tired. Lions generally have greater stamina, and the lion took this opportunity to gain an advantage over the tiger. It pounced on Gunga, but the legendary tiger displayed enormous resilience. While on its back, Gunga used its back legs to deliver a swift counter strike to the lion. With these strikes, it tore open the lion’s stomach, causing it to bleed heavily and die soon after.
When a Bengal tiger triumphed over the Barbary lion
Another gripping event of lion-tiger rivalry occurred at the end of the nineteenth century. Gaekwad of Baroda (prince of a small state in colonial India) organized a fight between the two super cats in an amphitheater. Gaekwad had placed a sizable bet on the Barbary lion, which had been brought from the mountains of Algeria to fight with a royal Bengal tiger.
During the fight, both cats sustained injuries. Interestingly, the tiger retreated from the mighty lion, but subsequently came back to fight again.
Despite the great valor displayed in the prolonged fight with the tiger, the Barbary lion succumbed to the injuries inflicted by the ferocious Bengal tiger and eventually died. The Gaekwad had to pay 37,000 rupees (roughly equivalent to today’s 1 million dollars!) at that time and accept the tiger as the true king of the cat family!
Juno the great
Thus far, we have only discussed encounters in which the tiger emerged victorious, but that’s not always the case. There is the saga of one brave lion called Juno who is said to have killed as many as 13 tigers in different encounters. It’s unclear if Juno killed tigers in one-on-one encounters or in collusion with other lions. Lions are known to hunt in packs, which confers a clear advantage over tigers (i.e., if lions are in a group and the tiger is alone). Whatever the case may be, Juno was one of the finest and bravest species of Barbary lions (now extinct), known for its grit and valor.
Lion vs Tiger: Who is the winner?
As mentioned earlier, the outcome of a fight between a lion and a tiger would depend heavily on the individuals–their age, breed, mood, fighting style, and physiology. Although there is no unanimity amongst the experts about who would be victorious, their choice generally is in favor of tigers.
An animal trainer named Alex Kerr, who has worked with lions and tigers extensively, mentions in his book that in a fight between the lion and tiger, the tiger has traditionally been triumphant. John Varty, owner of a private reserve in South Africa where lions rule the roost, also favored tigers over lions. He was of the opinion that tigers are superior fighters. Experts who have worked with the Save China Project opined that tigers are stronger than lion in terms of physical ability, and hold that a Siberian or Bengal tiger would win over an African lion.
However, not all experts assent to the tiger’s superiority. There are some experts who hold a contrarian opinion. For example, Clyde Betty, renowned animal trainer, opined that a full-grown lion is more likely to triumph over a full-grown tiger. Interestingly, animal conservationist Kailash Sankhala, popularly known as The Tiger Man of India, weighs more on lions than tigers. He believes that the mane on the male lion gives them a strong advantage and serves as a shield to protect from the tiger’s ferocious attack to the throat. Tigers do not have such protection and are therefore much more vulnerable from an attack by a lion. In his book, he observes that a tiger cannot really match a lion if pitted against a lion of equal size.
Summing it up
Clearly, the opinions of experts are divided when it comes to selecting a winner out of the two. Both cats have their own advantages and limitations. For example, the tiger is a lone hunter for most of its life, and has more muscle mass. They are bigger in size and heavier in weight. Also, they have sharper and longer fangs and claws. A tiger is slightly faster, arguably more ferocious, and definitely more agile. It can easily swim in water and climb trees. Lions, on the other hand, are more resilient and valiant. They have experience putting down large enemies—as big as an elephant or a giraffe—albeit in a group. Lions also have experience combatting other lions in the wild in defense of their pride, something that tigers lack.
Tigers are ferocious, and go for the kill, quickly launching powerful strikes on their opponents. Lions first gauge the opponent’s strength by striking with a single paw in a duel. They generally take a bit more time to go all out on the opponent in an attack. Perhaps this is because, in the wild, they generally have other lions as backup. Tigers are impulsive attackers who like to go all out from the beginning. Perhaps they are conditioned through evolution to be more ferocious and always go for the quick kill. At times, this may backfire, as a tiger might lose energy faster, and if met with a resilient lion, the tiger may fall prey to the lion!
While it cannot be unequivocally said who the winner would be, tigers seem like serious contenders for the King of Jungle, a moniker usually reserved for lions alone!