It has happened before. In 2011, a tiger surprisingly killed a lion at the Ankara Zoo in Turkey. The tiger and the lion were housed next to each other in separate cages, and the tiger is said to have found a gap in the fencing between them. This allowed him to slip through to the lion’s cage. Once inside, the tiger cut the lion’s jugular vein on its neck with its claws in one swat, causing the lion to die.
This was a real, live incident, and history also shows us that tigers may be mightier than lions. Fights that featured tigers fighting lions took place at the Roman Coliseum, and as William Bridges, a curator of written publications at the Bronx Zoo during the 1950s once told a curious reader, “the smart money usually backed the tiger.”
While there are no written documents to back up these claims that tigers naturally overpower lions when fighting to the death, art provides evidence. Paintings of life in ancient Rome can be found depicting the tiger winning these contests of might, and the lion losing.
These cases of tiger-vs-lion are a bit unique, however. In the descriptions above, the two animals are meeting each other in captivity, within the confines of human-constructed walls. They are also meeting one-on-one. How would the two beasts really match up if they met in the wild?
Size, Weight, and Personality
When considering who would win a deadly fight, physical characteristics count. Lions and tigers are very similar in height and length. Tigers are known to be heavier than lions, however, indicating that they may have more muscle mass, as muscle is weightier than fat. This could be something that contributes to tigers being able to kill lions when they face each other one-on-one in captivity.
Craig Saffoe, a biologist from the Smithsonian Zoo, has said that tigers are also more aggressive, and they strive for their prey’s throat in order to kill them right away, whereas lions pound and play around with their prey, which takes more time. One-on-one, this could potentially leave lions more vulnerable to the tiger’s faster killing instincts.
Two Different Approaches to Killing
In the wild, a tiger may not meet a lion alone. There is one big factor that is missing from these tales of tigers killing lions, and that is the fact that lions do not usually kill by themselves. Lions can prey alone, but they often kill in prides. If lions and tigers were to ever meet in the wild, the result could be much different than what we have seen so far with one tiger meeting just one lion.
Tigers are typically only found in groups when a mother is caring for her cubs. Tiger cubs are born blind and stay with their mother for about two years before striking out on their own. These solitary cats hunt at night by stalking their prey and sneaking up on it. They then pounce with a deadly bite to the neck.
Tigers can eat an astounding 88 pounds of meat in one killing, and they can go up to four or five days between feeds. Sometimes they eat large animals like deer, buffalo, and antelope, but they will also snack on smaller fare if they are hungry and that is what is available.
Lions, on the other hand, can have an entirely different way of killing. Some hunt alone, but lions also kill their prey in groups. One male may stalk prey upwind, and drive it down to a group of females, who can be hiding in grassy bushes further downwind. If done properly and the lions are lucky, the prey accidentally runs right into the jaws of the waiting females. These females will then kill their prey like a tiger does, with a bite to the neck. The lions will first knock their prey off balance, and then they will drag them to the ground before finally biting them.
Who would win in a fight between a tiger and a lion? If just one tiger meets with one lion, it seems like the tiger has the upper hand. In contrast, if a tiger meets with a group of lions, it could very well be the lions who are victorious and the tiger who succumbs to their teeth as a result of cunning, sly teamwork.