It’s March, 2011, the dying days of winter in Ankara. We find our characters in the most unlikely of places: a zoo. Two majestic cats, neighbours, each pacing the boundary of their metal enclosure, eking out an existence far from the plains of the Savannah Desert in a house, of sorts, that will be never their home. For all intents and purposes of the viewing public, they could be friends.
Media reports did not contain many details of the incident. We don’t know the time of day. We don’t know whether the tiger was antagonised. We don’t even know their names.
What we know is this: through a small gap in their fatally adjacent cages, the tiger severed the lion’s jugular vein with a single swipe.
As the lion’s life ebbed away, lying in a pool of its own blood, the tiger watched intensely, having just made prey of a majestic animal that shares 98 per cent of its DNA.
This article is about the two per cent.
Left alone in their natural habitats, the two per cent means mano-a-mano combat is rare: the lion, a social creature, roams in prides, while the tiger prefers to hunt alone. A tiger, fearful of the impact an injury could have on its future survival and without the insurance policy that fellow hunters offer, avoids other predators. Lions hunt in packs, generally seeking out meat-heavy and easily subdued prey, such as buffaloes, zebras and deer.
It’s our own morbid fascination with a battle for the jungle throne that has thrust these two alpha predators into situations of one-on-one combat. While these animals rarely meet in the wild, our demand for an answer to the ultimate question has churned out a plethora of painstakingly footnoted blog posts, YouTube videos with names that scream for blood, a Lion King-inspired folklore that refuses to die and a 1937 Glasgow lecture on the subject.
The lecturer in question, John Clarke, attempted to end the rampant speculation then and there, saying “in 100 cases out of 100 the tiger would always beat the lion.” Clarke was later exposed as a poet and a socialist – an armchair zoologist if there ever was one. Is he really to be trusted?
Charles Darwin, author of The Voyage of the Beagle and the father of ten children, witnessed a fight between a tiger and a lion in 1857. Darwin did not describe the fight at great length, but suffice to say it ended like this: “the tiger at last succeeded in ripping up its belly”.
Anecdotally, there is good reason to believe Darwin’s account. Those who’ve long bayed for lion blood got it right: the tiger is a killing machine. At its physical prime, a Siberian tiger will weigh 300kg, be able to outrun Usain Bolt, penetrate the hide of an elephant with teeth that measure 7.6 centimetres and, importantly for our debate, cut the jugular of a lion with 10.5 centimetre claws. While tigers bow to the comparative strength of an ant, their pulling power is not to be underestimated: witnesses have testified to seeing a tiger carry a fully-grown cow for four miles.
Contrary to popular depictions of the physically striking lion, the tiger is superior in nearly every area. The big three – paws, claws, jaws – all leave the lion at a disadvantage. Even its heralded advantages vanish upon closer inspection. The lion has shoulders that may rival those of LeBron James, but the fat to muscle ratio of those shoulders doesn’t compare favourably to the lean tiger. Two per cent makes all the difference in a battle for life and death.
However, it’s not just the pure physicality of each cat that chooses the winner. In strategy, the tiger’s method is to leverage its physical gifts to establish immediate dominance. Pinning the lion down, it seeks to end the fight almost before it begins, by tearing through the lion’s neck with its fearsome incisors. But the lion is no zebra. That photogenic mane is not just there for aesthetics and leaves the physically dominant tiger with a mouthful of hair. Thwarted by the ultimate hairball, the tiger either switches focus, shredding the stomach of the lion to reveal the gristly innards within, or begins to retreat.
If the latter option is taken, a longer wrestle begins. Lion apologists suggest that this is where the real advantage of the lion lies. As lions periodically fight other male lions for ownership of the pride, they are said to be more experienced when it comes to alpha cat fights. However, the tiger’s ability to assume a fighting position on its hind legs renders the ground bound lion cowering in its wake. The tiger can swipe with both paws, but the lion only one, a crucial advantage in the battle for supremacy.
Ancient myths and late 20th century Disney films have, ironically, lionised the lion. These fables distort our perceptions of the jungle’s true king to this day. In the fog of war, it can be hard to see when you’re backing the wrong side.
Myths may build statues in castles, they may place you in national Coats of Arms around the world, they may cast you as Jesus in a C.S. Lewis series. But they can’t help you against a 300kg killing machine.