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Tiger versus lion

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Lion and Tiger Fighting by James Ward, 1797

Historically, the comparative merits of the tiger versus the lion have been a popular topic of discussion by hunters, naturalists, artists, and poets, and continue to inspire the popular imagination in the present day.[1][2][3] Lions and tigers in the past may have competed in the wild where their ranges have overlapped. The most common reported circumstance of their meeting is in captivity, either deliberately or accidentally.


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 favoured the tiger.[4][5] A mosaic in the House of the Faun in Pompeii shows a fight between a lion and a tiger.[6] Titus, the Roman Emperor, had Bengal tigers compelled to fight the African lions, and the tigers always beat the lions.[7] A tiger that belonged to the King of Oude killed thirty lions, and destroyed another after being transferred to the zoological garden in London.[8] A British officer who resided many years at Sierra Leone saw many lion and tiger fights, and the tiger usually won.[9] At the end of the 19th century, the Gaekwad of Baroda arranged a fair fight between a Barbary lion and a Bengal tiger before an audience of thousands as the Asiatic lions were no match for the Bengal tigers. The Gaekwad favoured the lion, and as a result had to pay 37,000 rupees as the lion was mauled by the tiger.[2][10]

Competition in the wild[edit]

Lions and tigers coexisted in central India until the late 19th century.[11] 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.[11] Concerns were raised that the co-presence of lions and tigers would "trigger frequent clashes".[12] The University of Minnesota's Lion Research Project describes one reason to delay the introduction of Gir lions to Kuno Palpur is the fears that tigers living in Kuno would kill the incoming lions.[11]

Physical comparison[edit]

Comparative size[edit]

Comparative profiles of the lion and tiger[13]
Comparative illustration of tiger and lion skulls.
Comparison of tiger and lion skulls

The Siberian tiger and Bengal tiger represent the largest subspecies of the Panthera genus,[14] with reliably measured specimens weighing up to 465 kg (1,025 lb) in captivity and 384 kg (847 lb) in wild,[15] and 388.7 kg (857 lb)[16] respectively. The largest African lion on record weighed 313 kg (690 lb).[17] The average weight of males is 175 kilograms (390 lb) for the Asiatic lion, 186 kilograms (410 lb) for the African lion,[18][19][20] 221.2 kilograms (488 lb) for the Bengal tiger and 176.4 kilograms (389 lb) for the Siberian tiger.[21][22] The average weight 221.2 kilograms (488 lb) measured for the Bengal tiger excluded any stomach content while the average weight 186 kilograms (410 lb) measured for the African lion included stomach contents,[19][23] and a lion may eat up to 30 kg (66 lb) in one sitting.[24]


The lion is a highly social animal and the tiger is a solitary animal. Lions may roam in prides of up to 30 individuals headed by a mature male or group of related males. Male lions are typically either killed or pushed away by incoming male leadership. The majority of single roaming lions tend to be males preparing for maturation and assimilation with a new or existing pride. While male lions are generally larger and stronger than female lions, it is the close-knit female pride alliance that typically hunts and provides for the pride. By contrast, tigers are often solitary with the two sexes only interacting for purposes of copulation.[25]

Brain size[edit]

A study by Oxford University scientists has shown that tigers have much bigger brains, relative to body size, than lions and other big cats. Although comparisons showed that lion skulls were larger overall, the tiger's cranial volume is the largest—even the small female Balinese tiger skulls have cranial volumes as large as those of huge male southern African lion skulls.[26][27] Balinese tigresses weight between 65–80 kg (143–176 lb)[28] while the southern African male lions have an average weight of 189.6 kilograms (418 lb), representing the largest living lions.[19]

Bite force[edit]

Tigers have been shown to have higher average bite forces (such as at the canine tips) than lions.[29] The bite force adjusted for body mass allometry (BFQ) for tiger is 127 while that for lion is 112.[30] Tigers have a well-developed sagittal crest and coronoid processes, providing muscle attachment for their strong bite.[31] Tigers also have exceptionally stout teeth, and the canines are the longest and biggest among all living felids, measuring from 7.5 to 10 cm (3.0 to 3.9 in) in length, and are larger and longer than those of a similar-sized lion,[31][32] probably because tigers need to bring down larger preys alone than lions, which usually hunt large preys in groups.[32]

Accidental fights in captivity[edit]

Although lions and tigers can be kept together in harmony in captivity,[33] conflicts between the two species in captivity ending up in fatalities have also been recorded. The most recent account of a fight in captivity happened on March 2011, where a tiger at the Ankara Zoo attacked a lion through its enclosure and killed the lion with a single paw swipe.[34] "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. At the Coney Island animal show in 1909, a male tiger killed a male lion. During the performance, a performing lion attacked a chained tiger by leaping through the air, landing on the tiger's back. Though hampered by the heavy neck chain fastened to the iron bars of the arena, the tiger was more than a match for the lion and mangled the lion to death.[35] In 1857 an 18-month-old tiger at the Bromwich Zoo broke into the cage of an adult lion. The pair fought, and the young tiger ripped the lion's stomach. The lion died minutes later.[36]

There are various records of captive lions killing captive tigers. Some of these were circus animals, some were pit fights arranged in the early 20th century, and others accidental encounters between the two big cats. For example, Logansport Press, 1934, reports a battle between a fully grown African lion and a mature Bengal Tiger a short time after these circus animals were unloaded from the train. Before trainers could separate them, the lion had killed the tiger.[37] At South Perth Zoo, 1949, in a three-minute fight between a lion and a tiger, the lion killed the tiger. The fight occurred when the tiger put his head through a connecting slide. The lion caught the tiger by the throat, and, dragging it through the opening, killed it before the keepers arrived.[38] Dave Hoover, the animal trainer for Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus, mentions that he lost some of his tigers to male lions: "I have to keep the male lions from killing each other. I have to keep them from killing the tigers [...]. I have lost tigers." [39]

In December 2008, a 110 kg male lion killed a 90 kg tigress in a Korean zoo by suddenly biting it in the neck when the tigress jumped down to the trench.[40] In 1951 a large male African lion killed a much smaller tigress at a circus. The lion caught the tigress off guard, suddenly leaped from a high perch and sank its jaws into the tigress's back when the tigress was performing. The tigress died an hour after the attack because of the injuries sustained.[41][42]

Expert opinions[edit]

  • Animal Face-Off, a television program that airs on Discovery Channel, centers around hypothetical battles between two animals. Expert opinions, CGI replicas and models are used to collect data about the animals, such as strength, bite force, etc. In the hypothetical fight between an Asiatic Lion and Bengal Tiger, the lion was victor.[43]
  • Clyde Beatty the animal trainer and performer who owned several tigers, lions, hyenas, and other exotic animals, believed that in nine out of ten times, "a full-grown lion would whip a full-grown tiger." He mentions that since he first began mixing the animals, 25 of his tigers were killed in the circus arena, but there hasn't been a single lion casualty.[44]
  • Renowned naturalist and conservationist of India, Kailash Sankhala writes in his book Tiger that the tiger would be unable to get close to lion's vital joints because of his thick mane, but that the tiger would be vulnerable to the lion. He mentions once an Indian prince organized a fight between a lion and a tiger. In that case, the lion killed the tiger. Sankhala opined "that a tiger is no match for even single lion of equal strength." [45]
  • Dave Hoover, the animal trainer for Cole Bros. Circus, mentions that "lions are better fighters than tigers," and that some of their circus tigers were killed by lions [39]
  • John Varty, owner of the Londolozi Reserve in South Africa, said, "People always ask me which one is bigger? If a tiger and a lion had a fight, which one would win? Well, I've seen tigers crunch up a full-grown leopard tortoise like it was nothing. And lions try, but they just don't get it right. If there's a fight, the tiger will win, every time."[46]
  • The animal rescue organisation Big Cat Rescue of Tampa, Florida answered, "While we would much prefer that people focus their thoughts on saving these magnificent animals than on who would win if a lion and tiger fight, the power of these two largest cats seems to raise this question in people's minds. While it would depend on the size, age, and aggressiveness of the specific animals involved, generally tigers have a significant advantage."[47]
  • The conservation charity Save China's Tigers stated, "Recent research indicates that the tiger is indeed stronger than the lion in terms of physical strength. Lions hunt in prides, so it would be in a group and the tigers as a solitary creature so it would be on its own. A tiger is generally physically larger than a lion. Most experts would favor a Siberian and Bengal tiger over an African lion."[48]
  • National Geographic Channel's documentary The Last Lions of Asia mentioned that a Bengal tiger has a weight advantage of 50 kilograms (110 lb) over an Asiatic lion, and can kill the lion in a fight.[49]
  • 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 movements, 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."[50]

Mythical character comparison[edit]

18th-century naturalists and authors compared the species' characters, generally in favor of the lion.[51] 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."[52] 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."[51] 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."[51] In fact, a study was done by scientists Craig Packer and Peyton West that 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.[53]

Arts and literature[edit]


The Seringapatam medal shows a lion defeating a tiger

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'.[54] 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" (God's lion conquers).[55] 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.[55]


English literature compared their battle strengths.[56] The poets Edmund Spenser, Allan Ramsey, and Robert Southey described lion victories.[56] In the view of a 19th-century literary critic, these contests established "sovereignty of the animal world."[56]


In Paalai, a Tamil movie contains the dialogues which narrates about the characteristics of Tiger and Lion concludes that Tiger is superior. In that movie Tiger is the symbol and flag of Native Tamil Tribal people and Lion is the symbol and flag of Non-Tamil Singhal (literally meaning lion) people.[57]


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