By Joan Larsen
Meet Tippi, named after Tippi Hedren, the actress who starred in Hitchcock’s The Birds (and later formed a wildlife refuge of her own). Tippi was born to Alain Degre and Sylvie Robert of France, who worked as wildlife photographers in Namibia, my own favorite of countries in southern Africa.
Growing up in an African jungle in wildest Africa is a thing of stories and movies, but – for real-life Tippi – her “brother” was an elephant, her best friend a leopard, and her playground was the African bush. Tippi is definitely no ordinary child, but a little girl who had a gift of a wildlife whisperer. “I speak to them with my mind, or through my eyes, my heart or soul, and I see that they understand and answer me.”
She also befriended the Bushmen and the people belonging to the Himba tribe, forming an amazing connection.
Born in Namibia in 1990, her parents were filming in the Kalahari Desert, photographing meerkats, but also beautifully documenting Tippi’s childhood. As a young girl, she is recorded saying: “I don’t have friends here because I never see children. So the animals are my friends.”
Afterword: Having spent considerable time in Africa myself, knowing how extremely dangerous wild animals normally are, I know that even those that seem “tame” at one moment can easily turn on you the next. I was not going to be content until I heard from Tippi’s mother. What could she have been thinking of to have such trust of wild animals when dealing with the life of her small child? I got to the bottom of this finally.
Even though there was apparent ease and comfort in how Tippi interacted with the animals, she assured us that Tippi’s safety was thought of first. “In the arid desert regions of Southern Africa, people have huge farms. The farmers often keep orphan animals and raise them in their home or grounds. Sometimes they are tame and used to humans and so this is how Tippi was able to be close to them.” The photo with Tippi next to the lion cub and sucking her thumb is touching and wonderful. On a return visit the following year, the now almost grown lion brushed her with his tail and she almost fell down. She was immediately taken away. Her mother said: “I was not at ease.” Understatement in my estimation. In a flash, Tippi could have been killed. There were several other “incidents” related – one that was quoted by her mother as “terribly painful.”
I have had my own close calls with animals of the wild in Namibia, totally unpredictable. I totally believe that when Tippi’s mother said: “I had to keep a special eye on my daughter,” it was clearly not enough!!!
When the family returned to Paris when Tippi was 9, she attended a local school for two years. But then she was homeschooled because she was found to have little in common with the other children of Paris. “She missed the animals so much,” said her mother Sylvie. Given a bird, it would go everywhere with her. Tippi called it the only friend she had.
Where is Tippi now? At age 23, she is studying in her third year in a degree in cinema at the Sorbonne. A book of her adventurous young life – Tippi of Africa, filled with the photos you see, is a best seller. There are short videos as well. I hear she has returned to Africa to make six nature documentaries for the Discovery Channel. For those who are as fascinated as I was over Tippi’s story, I highly recommend The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony. After years of attempting to gain the confidence of a herd of wild elephants on his land with some success at times, he realized that when the animals feel danger of any sort, they may revert to their wild selves. A book to be treasured.
Writer Joan Larsen has spent a lifetime searching for the most remote places on Earth. But it is the polar regions of our world that she has been drawn back to again and again. She has done research in these lands of ice, and considers Antarctica to be her “other home.”
PHOTO CREDITS: PHOTOGRAPHY BY SYLVIE ROBERT / BARCROFT MEDIA LTD. FROM TIPPI MY BOOK OF AFRICA