I got an email from our university press officer earlier this week asking “whether we have a ‘zoologist who could participate in a light-hearted discussion about who would win in a fight between a tiger and a rhino on Friday morning’.” The request was from the local BBC Radio Leeds team who wanted to break up their coverage of the Leeds Rhinos vs Castleford Tigers rugby league Challenge Cup final preparations with some light-hearted digressions. I have resolved to take a more active part in science communication (including this blog), because I see that as a fundamental part of my job (even if it is little-rewarded…) and so I agreed to do it.
For those of you who listened, I was interviewed live by telephone yesterday (Friday 22nd August) around 8.30am and the piece is available below:
While I always knew the segment would be a bit fluffy, I took the opportunity to talk a little bit about the ecology of the two species: that there are several species of rhinos and tigers, that they occur together in northern India, and that tigers do attack rhinos under some circumstances. I tried to make the point that even a big tiger (300kg is about the largest, and that’s a Siberian tiger that would never encounter a rhino) attacking a full-grown rhino (up to 3500kg) would be like a West Highland terrier attempting to attack an adult human. In fact, that large body size is itself an evolutionary strategy that many animals have evolved to avoid predation.
There is an interesting case in Kaziranga National Park in India, however, where tigers (usually solitary hunters) group together to attack full-grown rhino. This seems to be the product of two unusual circumstances: (i) in the National Park there are high densities of Bengal tigers which means that the formation of discrete territories is difficult, and (ii) male rhino are solitary which make them easier prey than herds of buffalo. The tigers would usually leap on a prey animal (from up to 30 feet away) and wrestle the animal to the ground while trying to bite the nape of the neck or the throat. This doesn’t work with large rhino, so instead it seems that the tigers are content to tire the animal until it gives up.
The final point I wanted to make but didn’t (I should have controlled the interview a bit better) was that there is relatively little chance of rhinos and tigers encountering one another in the wild, mostly because we have killed so many of them. The remaining populations of rhinos and tigers look something like this (stats from Wikipedia articles on tigers and rhinos):
- White rhinoceros: 17480
- Black rhinoceros: 2000(ish)
- Indian rhinoceros: 3000
- Javan rhinoceros: 100
- Sumatran rhinoceros: 200
- Bengal tiger: 2500
- Indochinese tiger: 350
- Malayan tiger: 500
- Siberian tiger: 400
- South China tiger: 0? (possibly extinct)
- Sumatran tiger: 500
That means around 27,000 animals in the two groups combined. If Wembley Stadium sells out for the challenge cup final, there will be three times more rugby fans in Wembley than there are rhinos and tigers in the world. If you want to help, here are two great charities: Save the Rhino and Save Tigers Now (WWF).