Police patrols supported by drones were scouring the Pyrenees mountains today as part of an ongoing investigation into the death of British hiker Esther Dingley.
Detectives in France confirmed that the reason the 37-year-old Oxford graduate came to die was still unknown, and that no theory could yet be ruled out – including foul play.
A skull with hair attached was discovered close to Port de la Gléré, a mountain pass on the country’s Spanish border, a week ago, and on Friday it was confirmed as the only known remains of Ms Dingley.
French police reportedly believe that her remains were hidden by rocks after falling, before animals moved the skull that was later discovered, according to The Times.
The human remains found last Friday in the Pyrenees were confirmed as those of missing hiker Esther Dingley (pictured with her boyfriend Daniel Colegate), with French police now scouring the mountains to learn what happened to her
Oxford graduate Esther Dingley disappeared in November while on a solo-hike in the Pyrenees in November
‘The enquiry is ongoing, and being led by a public prosecutor with the assistance of judicial police and gendarmes,’ said a senior police source.
‘There are still many questions to be answered, and that is why mountain searches are continuing.
‘Foot patrols are in the area, and they are using drones to try and find further evidence connected with the case.’
This would include Ms Dingley’s personal equipment, such as a yellow tent and red-and-grey rucksack, said the source.
While a tragic accident is being prioritised by those leading the enquiry, other theories, including foul play, have not been dismissed, the source confirmed.
Ms Dingley went missing in the area around Port de la Gléré while on a solo walk, and her boyfriend, Dan Colegate, reported her missing on November 25.
Dingley had planned a solo hike from the Spanish town of Benasque to Pic de Sauvegarde, a mountaintop in the Pyrenees – which she reached on November 22, sending Colgate a picture via WhatsApp, which was their last contact
This followed Ms Dingley sending a message three days earlier from the top of the Pic de Sauvegarde mountain.
Forensics officers at the Scientific Police Laboratory in Toulouse matched the skull with Ms Dingley after her mother, Ria Byrant, provided DNA, along with dental records.
The enquiry in France is now being led by Christophe Amunzateguy, the Prosecutor of Saint-Gaudens.
He has been told by police colleagues that wild animals may have picked up the skull in a hidden gulley and transported it to the spot where it was found by Spanish hikers.
Brown bears and wolves are among the animals roaming freely in the Pyrenees, and birds of prey such as vultures are also a common sight.
‘This is the most plausible hypothesis,’ said Colonel Xavier Wargnier, one of the senior French officers involved in the search.
Bones were discovered in the search for the missing British hiker last Friday after a mountain runner raised the alarm
He confirmed that the skull was found at an altitude of 2,200 meters (7218ft) but that it could also have been dislodged by melting snow.
‘It could have hurtled down the mountain during the Spring thaw,’ he said.
The search for Ms Dingley was called off from February because of worsening weather, before resuming in late April.
LBT Global, an organisation which supports searches for missing people, announced on Friday that Ms Dingley’s identity was confirmed through DNA testing after a skull was found close to her last known location.
Ms Dingley’s partner, Mr Colegate, and her mother, said in a joint statement that the discovery was ‘devastating beyond words.’
Police last week found bones near the spot where missing hiker Esther Dingley went missing late last year
Spanish police confirmed last Friday bones had been found near the spot where Oxford graduate went missing late last year.
A mountain runner raised the alarm around 2pm after discovering what he believed could be the remains of a body.
Spanish police went to the area but alerted their French counterparts after discovering the spot was just over the border.
French police subsequently took charge of the investigation to try to confirm they were human remains and who they could belong to if so.
Unconfirmed reports at the time said the runner had come across a skull with hair that appeared to be the same colour and length as Dingley’s.
The remains were found at Puerto de la Glera – Port de la Glera in France – which is close to the 8,796ft Pico Salvaguardia summit where Dingley last made contact with her partner around 4pm on November 22 last year.
Specialist officers from Spain and France had carried out several searches of the area around the hiking trail.
French police chief Jean-Marc Bordinaro, who has been involved in the search from day one, said after the find at the French mountain pass animals could have dragged the remains to the spot where they were discovered.
‘Everything suggests that these bones were recently moved by animals. They would not have been there a few days earlier’, he said.
Commander Bordinaro confirmed that police on both sides of the border were carrying out urgent searches to see if they can trace where the skull and related bones may have been hidden.
Ms Dingley was carrying a distinctive yellow tent, and had a bright red-and-grey rucksack with her when she went missing, but no trace of either has been found.
Both are made of hardwearing material that would last for years out in the open, including in the rugged Pyrenees countryside.