TALLINN - A DNA test may reveal whether the Baltics' famous traveling bear has returned home to Latvia after a summer holiday on Estonia's Ruhnu Island.
Scientists are planning to analyze bear droppings found near the Latvian coast to see if the DNA matches that of a bear that arrived - only to disappear months later - on tiny Ruhnu Island last spring.
If the samples match, it will prove that the bear has completed a remarkable voyage across the Baltic Sea.
The bear's pan-Baltic holiday began in April when it was seen floating across the Gulf of Riga on an ice floe. Scientists presumed that the animal found itself stranded on the breakaway island of ice during the spring thaw.
Days later, fishermen on Ruhnu Island noticed bear paw prints on the shore. Its arrival was confirmed shortly after when locals on the 12sq-m island laid eyes on the most unlikely tourist.
The bear captured the nation's attention as it dodged forest rangers sent to tranquilize and extradite the animal. A feeding campaign was commenced to ensure the bear survived, and groups of enthusiasts even took camping trips to the island to catch a glimpse of the famous traveling karu (Estonian for bear).
But the excitement ended when the bear disappeared from Ruhnu, as unexpectedly as it had arrived, at the end of the summer.
"Nobody knows what happened to it," said Reigo Joe, one of the island's 40 residents.
"Maybe somebody shot the bear, but it is a small island and we would know if this had happened. Or maybe he decided to swim away."
The department of game monitoring at Estonia's Center of Forestry Protection and Silviculture believes the latter is most likely.
"Bears are very good swimmers," said department representative Peep Mannil."Tracks were seen in Latvia shortly after the bear disappeared from Ruhnu."
The Estonian island lies some 40 kilometers from the coast of Latvia, and Mannil said there was every chance the bear could have completed the journey home.
Forestry officials in Latvia will now collect droppings and send them to a testing center in Tartu for analysis.