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The REAL Mowgli: Incredible images of the little girl who spent the first ten years of her life growing up in the African bush
- Tippi Benjamine Okanti Degre was brought up with wild animals in Africa, is now 23 and lives in France
- Made friends with an elephant, who she calls her brother, and a leopard
- Tippi was born in Namibia but travelled extensively with her photographer parents
June 7, 2013
by JILL REILLY
Heart-warming pictures of the real life Mowgli, a girl who spent the first ten years of her life growing up in the African bush, have been released for the first time.
The magical images chronicle the life of Tippi Benjamine Okanti Degre, who was brought up with wild animals, just like Rudyard Kipling’s hero did in The Jungle Book.
The images in ‘Tippi: My Book of Africa” – now being published worldwide for the first time – show the young girl making friends with an elephant, who she calls her brother, and a leopard, her best friend.
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Bond: Tippi aged 6 sitting on the back of Linda, a tamed ostrich in South Africa, left, and cradling two meerkats
Living with her French parents, wildlife photographers Sylvie Robert and Alain Degre, the three of them travelled extensively through Africa on a unique and incredible trip.
The adventure started where Tippi was born in Namibia, and ended in her travelling through countries like Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
‘Her everyday life was making sure monkeys did not steal her bottle,’ said Sylvie.
‘Or she would call me over and point to an elephant eating from a palm tree and say ‘mummy, be quiet, we’re going to frighten him.’
‘She had so much freedom.
‘It was like having the biggest playground. We lived in a tent, completely in the wild, but she always woke up with the sun shining and her parents around her. She was very lucky.’
And the incredible photos – from sitting on the back of an ostrich, lying peacefully with a young caracal, or dancing playfully with an elephant – show an unusual bond and tranquility between man and beast.
‘She was so at ease with animals. She would talk to them with her eyes and her heart,’ said Sylvie.
Using her innocence and imagination, the young ‘Mowgli’ befriended one of the giants of the animal kingdom, Abu the African elephant.
‘She had no fear,’ said Sylvie.
Time out: Tippi rests on the trunk of Abu the 34-year-old elephant in Okavango Swamps, Botswana before leading him on a trip
‘She did not realise she was not the same size as Abu the elephant. She would just speak to him like she would speak to me. They used to call her ‘the little girl who would talk with animals.’
Tippi was able to form strong bonds with some of the most dangerous beasts in the animal kingdom because they were used to humans.
Most of the animals had been orphaned and raised by farmers.
However, despite the apparent ease and comfort with which they interact, Sylvie always put Tippi’s safety first.
‘You can’t just meet any of these animals and act like this with them,’ explains Sylvie.
‘Wild animals will either run away or attack you if they are either frightened, injured or need to protect their young.
No fear: The young child cradles a rock python snake and plays with her favourite elephant
So always had to keep a special eye on her daughter.
‘I had the least fear I wouldn’t have let Tippi anywhere near them. The photo with Tippi next to the young lion cub Mufasa sucking her thumb is wonderful.
‘The year after this photo we came back and we went to see him and he was huge.
‘Mufasa came to Tippi and he friendly brushed her with his long tail, like a cat would do, and she almost fell down. I had to take her away – I was not at ease.
‘But she was only ever bitten once on the nose by a Meerkat, only two bites!
‘This is funny because Tippi’s middle name is Okanti, meaning mongoose or meerkat. They were part of her family in Africa, so I wanted her to have something to take home with her.’
‘The second incident was when she met with Cindy the baboon at a water point. Cindy attacked Tippi’s hair and pulled out a handful, out of jealousy.
‘That was terribly painful! Wild animals are unpredictable. We can’t be sure of their reaction as we are not of the same species, we don’t know all of
their behaviour codes.
Medical help: Tkui applying medicine made from berries to Tippi’s eye in Namibia and shows her how to make a bow and arrow
‘When we last went back to Africa in 2006 we went went to see some of the animals she met in the past, including Cindy the baboon.
‘We found out that Cindy is a grandma now: my friend who has raised her like the baby of the family had twins. Cindy decided that she was in charge of them and, being older, became like a grandma for the kids.
‘They met each other and Cindy went to Tippi and started playing with her hair, grooming her. It was quite beautiful.’
And it wasn’t only the animals who were taken with the young Tippi, as Sylvie explains.
‘When we came to a village with African children, within two minutes Tippi was the clown and people found her so cute,’ she says.
‘Africans love other children – especially white children and she was so much fun with her hair and so different.
‘When we filmed the San Bushmen of northern Namibia (one of the most ancient people of Africa who live from hunting and gathering in the Kalahari desert) we would let Tippi spend the day with the group without us until she would fall asleep among. the kids.
‘She was at ease with the children and would dress and play with them – she could never find the same when she came back to Europe.’
When Tippi returned to her parents’ native country – France – at the age of ten, it was hard adjusting to city life in Paris.
‘She missed the animals so much,’ said her mother Sylvie.
‘We didn’t have room for a dog in our flat, so we got a budgie instead.
‘It would go everywhere with her, even on the train, flying right by her side, sitting on her head or falling asleep on her shoulder.
‘She loved that little bird so much. He was the only friend she had.’
Now aged 23 and studying her third year in a degree in cinema, Tippi is facing a different jungle … the concrete one.
But the memories of her time in Africa – recorded in a series of interviews and written up into the book – will forever live on through its pages.
‘She gave her heart and thoughts away in her book,’ said Sylvie.
‘It is like Mowgli’s story, but for Tippi it’s true.’