The scene is enough to make any parent’s heart race. The young girl sits, calm and innocent, completely oblivious to the danger of the leopard lurking at her side.
She shows no fear as she sits beside the animal, as if the ferocious beast were nothing more than a tame house cat. But this is no ordinary six-year-old – this is Tippi Degré, a girl whose life is straight out of The Jungle Book.
Tippi was born in Namibia in 1990, the daughter of French wildlife shutterbugs Alain Degré and Sylvie Robert. Named for the actress Tippi Hedren, she spent the first decade of her existence on an incredible adventure in the African bush.
While her parents were busy snapping photographs and touring through countries such as Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa, Tippi was free to make friends with everything and everyone they encountered. This led to some unusual friendships, as the young girl forged connections with a veritable menagerie of wild animals.
“Her everyday life,” Sylvie told the Mail Online, “was making sure monkeys did not steal her bottle.” It’s easy to see why comparisons with Mowgli have been made.
Tippi spent her formative years living in a tent with her family. At a time when other girls her age were playing with toys and watching Disney movies, she was spending her days among elephants, crocodiles, giraffes and big cats.
Tippi and her family believed that she had a natural talent for communicating with the animals. Because she had lived around them her entire life, she showed no fear of them.
“Tippi always said that everybody was gifted and this was her gift,” Sylvie told The Telegraph. “She was in the mindset of these animals. She believed the animals were her size and her friends.”
When she was just one and a half years old, Tippi met an African elephant known as Abu. Yet far from being intimidated by the gigantic animal, the little girl saw him as her equal. Later, she would refer to Abu as her brother.
It was in the girl’s interactions with Abu that Sylvie noticed Tippi’s seeming ability to communicate with the animals around her. “She would look into [his] eyes and speak to him,” she recalled.
Blessed with such an amazing source of inspiration, Tippi’s parents captured some incredible photographs of the young girl and her animal friends. They snapped her sitting astride an ostrich, playing with a rock python, and riding through the swamps on Abu’s neck.
Other photos showed Tippi stroking a friendly baboon, cuddling up to meerkats and – in one particularly striking image – sleeping next to a lion cub which is suckling on her hand.
Although many parents would balk at the idea of letting their child get so close to wild animals, Sylvie insists that Tippi was never in danger. She explained, “Farmers often keep orphan animals and raise them in their house. Sometimes they are tame and used to humans and so this is how Tippi was able to be so close with them.”
But there were a few hair-raising moments. Once, Tippi was nipped at on the nose twice by a meerkat. Another incident involved the lion cub she was photographed with, Mufasa. Having returned to see him a year after the photo was shot, Sylvie found the lion’s friendly behavior towards Tippi a little too boisterous and had to remove the little girl.
There was also the time when Cindy the baboon tore out a chunk of Tippi’s hair in a jealous fit. “That was terribly painful,” admitted Sylvie. “Wild animals are unpredictable.”
It wasn’t just animals that Tippi befriended in her explorations of the African bush, though. While her parents were shooting footage of the hunter-gatherer San Bushmen in Namibia, the little girl bonded with the local children.
Yet although Tippi made plenty of friends in the bush – where her blonde locks and white skin were a novelty – she struggled to acclimatize when her family went back to metropolitan life. Aged 10, Tippi left the wonderland of her childhood to move with her mom and dad to an apartment in Paris.
“She missed the animals so much,” Sylvie told the Mail Online. “We didn’t have room for a dog in our flat, so we got a budgie instead.” Tippi adored the small bird, and according to Sylvie, “He was the only friend she had.”
Eventually, however, Tippi adjusted to life away from the wild. She’s now aged 25, and her explorations have involved studying for a film degree and working to raise public awareness of the special relationship between animals and humans. She has also written a book about her childhood, published in 2012.
In Tippi: My Book of Africa, she reminisces about her magical childhood growing up alongside some of the world’s rarest and most beautiful animals. She also shares her thoughts on the special ability to communicate with animals, which she feels she developed during her time in the wild: “I speak to them with my mind,” she says, “or through my eyes, my heart, or my soul, and I see that they understand and answer me.”