How Tigers Hunt

How Tigers Hunt

Have you ever watched a domestic cat stalking a bird in your yard? It still fascinates me when I watch our seventeen-year-old black cat, lowering herself to the ground, eyes focused with a two-thousand-yard stare on her quarry, ready to pounce at the vital moment only she can perceive.

Panthera tigris (the scientific name for the tiger, which encompasses five sub-species found from Siberia to Sumatra), is effectively a larger version of my humble cat, with several subtle differences of course (I would think twice before dangling string in front of a tiger).
However, the principles of both creature’s physiology and instincts are dictated by the evolution of the ‘Big Cat’ family: ‘Felidae’, or “carnivores with short skulls and well-developed claws” (Burnie, 2001) which have developed these features due to the food they eat.

According to one of the most influential zoologists of the last fifty years, Sir David Attenborough, “An animals body is shaped by the food it eats…over many generations eating the same food can transform a species, so all carnivores have sharp claws and teeth to catch their prey” (Attenborough, 2002).

This helps to explain why a tiger looks the way it does, having a sleek muscular body (from eating predominantly protein), large eyes to let in light and see in the dark, powerful limbs to pursue prey and a large tail to act as a counter-balance when it jumps on its prey (Attenborough, 2002).

A tiger combines all these aspects of its physiology when hunting, whether that is in the frozen wastes of Siberia, hunting wild boar (Sus scrofa) or Sika Deer (Cervus Nippon) to the ubiquitous Sambar (Cervus unicolor) by Bengal tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) in India (Burnie, 2001).

How a tiger hunts its prey

Stalking its prey

When we are hungry we simply rustle something up from the refrigerator or drive to a fast food restaurant, as a species man has lost the ability to hunt and catch his food using the lie of the land and his instincts.

To a tiger possessing the ability to track its prey is a matter of eating or starving, a matter of living or dying. The striking black and orange pattern of a tiger is not just for show, it uses this adaptive camouflage perfectly to blend into the shadows, its coat of broken stripes resembling the effect of dappled light in a forest. To its unassuming prey the tiger is invisible, even at close range as long as it remains down wind of it, so the quarry is not prematurely alerted and has chance to escape.

Ideally, a tiger will choose to creep with its body low to the ground (giving rise to that classic vertical undulating shoulder movement) and strike the animal from the rear at distances of no greater than 100 metres (300 feet). However, if the tiger does have to run it can top speeds of 40 miles per hour, despite averaging a weight of 660lbs in male Siberian tigers (Burnie, 2001).

The effect of this is like being hit by a car at 40 mph by complete surprise, a truly overpowering force, which is little wonder why Siberian male tigers have been recorded as breaking the spines of buffalo with a single swipe of their paw (Burnie, 2001).

Delivering the kill

Typically though, a tiger (much in common with its African cousin the lion (Panthera leo)) will use the inertia and momentum of a lightning quick charge to stun and floor its prey, preferring to deliver the coup de grace by means of a choke hold delivered to the throat of a deer or buffalo.
This simultaneously severs the windpipe and carotid artery of the unfortunate beast, whilst suffocating it. Despite being such a powerful animal the tiger will take care to avoid the thrashing movements of the preys hooves or paws as a blow to the tigers eye may render it blind or incapacitated. Either way, if it cannot hunt because of injury, it may starve and its young may perish.

A tiger will often employ a jump towards the end of its attack to deliver the maximum amount of power to its prey, capably leaping up to 35 feet from one spot (Attenborough, 2002). Here a tiger will use its tail (which comprises a third of its overall total length) to balance its powerful front quarters and deliver its force into its front paws and jaw.

For smaller prey items, observed in Sumatra for example, tigers have been known to pursue monkeys into trees, and similarly deliver a bite to the neck, to cutting off the blood supply to the head (Quammen, 1996).

Unlike a lion however, tigers will often hunt alone, except when they are young, where they will stick together in small groups with their mother whilst learning the tricks of the trade.

Other foods

Unlike most off their big cat brethren, tigers are excellent swimmers and perfectly at home in the water, preferring to spend the humid afternoons of a tropical jungle in a cool lake or stream (Burnie, 2001). Here they may come into contact with crocodiles (Crocodylus sp.) and have been known to kill them when surprised in the water.

Tigers are opportunistic feeders like most mammals, especially when food is scarce or when females are restricted in their movements due to the arrival of their young.
Tigers will make the most of their surroundings by eating varieties of fruit, which are nutritious and abundant, such as the fruit of the Slow Match Tree (Careya arborea) (Quammen, 1996). Indeed scientists have suggested that the extremely hard outer tusk of the fruit has evolved to attract the tiger as it can open it with its powerful bite (Burnie, 2001).

Tigers hunting conflicts with man

Inevitably where man and beast collide there will be conflict, more often than not to the detriment of animals. The case of the tiger is a well-documented and lamentable tale of habitat destruction, persecution and what amounts to hysterical mass genocide.

While individual tigers have been known to attack people and eat them (classed as man-eaters), this is only in extremely rare cases and often when food is scarce or when man strays onto a male tigers territory or surprises a female with her young. Tigers will usually disappear into the shadows at the sound of humans, but if startled may attack.

To avoid unnecessary killings of tigers, farmers and other people who come into contact with tigers in Bengal, India, have been advised to wear masks with human faces with prominent large eyes on the backs of their heads. This is because it is believed that tigers prefer to attack from the behind and will be fooled by two eyes staring at them (Attenborough, 2002), don’t think I’d like to try it though.

Despite being the top predator anywhere it is found, the Tiger is still persecuted by man. The continued dedication of conservationists to educate the indigenous local peoples about Tiger ecology, and dispel the myths about it as a mindless man-eater, will be required to ensure the continuation of this majestic species into the next decade.


Attenborough, D. (2002). The Life of Mammals. BBC Books Ltd.

Burnie, D. (2001). Animal. Dorling Kindersley

Quammen, D. (1996). The Song of the Dodo. Pimlico Publishing