Mowgli was a child raised by animals in Rudyard Kipling’s fictional The Jungle Book. But Tippi Degré, who spent her childhood living among the wild animals of Africa, is not a character in any storybook. Known as “the real Mowgli,” Tippi’s incredible life has been the basis of two documentaries, and countless magazine and newspaper articles.
Tippi was born Tippi Benjamine Okanti Degré on June 4, 1990. Her parents, Sylvie Robert and Alain Degré, were wildlife photographers. They named their daughter after actress Tippi Hedren, star of Alfred Hitchcock’s film, The Birds. Hedren was an outspoken animal advocate who, herself, had pet lions, so the name was appropriate.
Tippi was barely out of the womb when her parents introduced her to the animal kingdom. Asked about their unusual parenting style, they told The Telegraph newspaper that it was “magical to be able to be free in this nature with this child.” Tippi quickly developed a keen instinct about animals.
Tippi’s childhood with animals includes stories of trying to keep the monkeys from taking her baby bottle. When she was older, she would go on walks with her mother into the animals’ natural habitat. Tippi was fearless, and quick to recognize that animals have emotions too. She befriended them easily, and interacted with them as if they were human. Sylvie would remark “She was in the mindset of these animals. She believed the animals were her size and friends.” Even when around a potentially ferocious lion or leopard, she acted as if they were common housecats.
Tippi was already walking at 10 months old, a skill that she could use to her advantage. But Tippi faced more danger than the common toddler, so her parents taught her survival skills to keep her safe.
Animals, especially wild animals, are unpredictable, and Tippi’s parents watched their daughter closely. Tippi had spent time with a lion cub named Mufasa, after The Lion King, when she was very young. She’d been photographed curled up next to the cub, but when the lion grew into an adult, they met again.. This time, the lion was still friendly, but also much larger, to the point where his tail knocked her over. The parents stepped in and had her keep her distance.
Tippi’s Animal Friends
Tippi had a menagerie of animal friends. Her best friend was an elephant named Abu. The two formed an incredible bond, spending hours in each other’s company. Another animal pal of Tippi’s was a leopard named J&B. The leopard was the pet of a farmer who lived near Tippi’s parents, and was adopted after its mother was killed. Tippi had a gift of speaking to the animals and they appeared to understand her.
Some children love all kinds of animals, while others scream at the idea of touching a slimy reptile or snake. One photograph her parents took shows Tippi befriending a large African Bullfrog. Yes, that’s Tippi actually hugging the frog.
Another photograph of Tippi has her riding an ostrich named Linda. Linda lived at a local farm, and Tippi’s parents said Linda was careful not to let the girl fall off. Ostriches are hard to encounter in the wild, as they’re traditionally skittish. It was a rare opportunity for Tippi to interact with Linda, and she took advantage of it. The result was an incredible picture that’s been seen the world over.
Tippi’s family would often travel around Africa in order to experience different cultures. They spent a lot of time with the Himba tribe in Kalahari, who taught Tippi survival skills, which berries and roots were safe to eat; how to speak their language; and how to use a bow and arrow.
The Degrés family traveled to many exotic places, among them Seabird Island, which was a breeding ground for birds located off the coast of South Africa. Tippi was 6 when she joined thousands of feathered friends for this incredible photo.
Tippi showed an affinity for animals in every photograph her parents took, including this one with a snake. She frequently would cuddle with leopard and lion cubs – like her namesake, the actress Tippi Hedren, who often brought lions into her home.
It’s not wise to feed wild animals, especially if you don’t know what is appropriate for their diet. Of course, Tippi and her family understood all the do’s and don’ts. Here she’s feeding a zebra who looks thrilled to receive the snack.
The elephants were a particular favorite for Tippi, and she would refer to Abu as her “brother.” Elephants are known as deeply emotional creatures, and as you look at this picture, you can see the elephant’s affection for Tippi. She rides the elephant but it braces her carefully with its trunk, careful not to let her drop. Elephants are among of the world’s largest mammals and could crush a child Tippi’s size in an instant, but they were gentle giants around her.
The world Tippi inhabited was nowhere near that of her peers which she discovered when the family eventually moved to Europe. In Africa, she wore animal skins and loincloths, due to the area’s extreme temperatures, She would carry a suitcase made from trees rather than a purse, and her nap partners weren’t plush toys, but real live animals.
Tippi’s parents opted to homeschool her, teaching her what they knew from their own academic lessons. The wild was her classroom, and it was an environment that suited their lifestyle.
Tippi Grows Up
Tippi’s childhood photo albums are breathtaking. Her parents had a keen eye for capturing Tippi in her natural element, and their images have been featured in blogs, magazines and documentaries.
Many of the animals Tippi encountered had been raised by local farmers, so they were more domesticated than a traditional wild animal. Her mother said “In the arid or semi desert regions of Southern Africa people have farms of 10,000 to 20,000 hectares. The farmers often keep orphan animals and raise them in their house. Sometimes they are tame or used to humans and so this is how Tippi was able to be so close with them.” According to Tippi, there was only one incident where she was bitten, and this was a bite on the nose by a meerkat.
Tippi’s childhood led to her making documentaries for the Discovery Channel when she was 12. She enjoyed reacquainting herself with the animals, but found the process of making a movie tiring. “It was hard work, it was difficult, it was hot and I was not happy all the time. I was worn out at the end of it.” she explained. Her documentaries included The World According to Tippi (1997), Tippi en Afrique (2002), and Around the World with Tippi (2004). Her parents’ photographs were published in a book entitled Tippi: My Book of Africa in 2012.
Although her life in the wild was amazing, Tippi’s parents wanted her to have a more traditional teenage experience. So they moved to Paris, France. It was a jarring transition. She found it difficult to attend regular school, and eventually returned to homeschooling. Her peers treated her like an oddity and a celebrity, which made her uncomfortable at times. Instead of the African plains, her playground was now concrete. Tippi missed Africa and her animal friends, so her parents gave her a pet budgie to keep her company. The budgie was her faithful companion and would go everywhere with her, even on the train.
Tippi, who continues lives in Paris, has re-visited Africa several times. She’s actively involved in cinema and audiovisuals at La Sorbonne Nouvelle University in France and directs El Petit FICMA, the children’s section of a local film festival. Speaking of her daughter, Sylvie says “Tippi believes she is African and she wants to get a Namibian passport. She wants to become an ambassador for Namibia. It is like Mowgli’s story, but Tippi’s is true.”