Concord Monitor Article on the PNG Trip

“A Quest to Slay the Evolutionary Dragon: Creationist Treks to the Pacific for Evidence”
Story originally published by The Concord Monitor
By Sarah Earl – May 29, 2005

He snacks on live bugs, sleeps in a hut and has never watched television, but someday soon an Umboi Island native, armed with a $7 drugstore camera, could snap a photograph that forces changes in textbooks and science museums the world over.

So says David Woetzel, a Concord businessman who recently returned from a three-week expedition to the tiny island in Papua New Guinea. Woetzel, president and CEO of CCR Data Systems in Concord and an outspoken creationist, says he’s found compelling evidence of a modern-day pterosaur (a flying reptile closely related to the dinosaur) living in the region.

“I want to attract people to the evidence that dinosaurs and men have always co-existed,” said Woetzel, who conducts seminars in schools and has a pro-creationism web site:

Woetzel’s evidence consists primarily of reports from Umboi Island natives, who described a creature resembling the Dimorphodon pterosaur of the early Jurassic period, a formidable beast that gives off a glow as it flies through the sky at night. The creature, which islanders call a Ropen, is said to have a four-meter wingspan, leathery, bat-like wings, a large head, a beak filled with teeth and a long tail with a flange on the end.

The natives, Woetzel says, take for granted the existence of the creature. A quarter of the people Woetzel interviewed said they’d seen the Ropen in some form. More than three quarters said they’d seen the flash of the light the beast reportedly gives off to attract fish. Almost all of them, he said, had at least heard of the Ropen.

Woetzel is not the first Westerner to search for the rumored beast. Intrigued by reports from a World War II pilot, several other explorers have visited Umboi Island and conducted interviews with villagers. A missionary pilot has collected numerous reports of Ropen encounters, and anecdotal evidence of the Ropen litters the Internet: One cruise line even mentions it in its brochure.

While previous explorers stuck close to the Umboi Island’s more populated villages, Woetzel and his partner, a California firefighter, traveled deep into the bush, clawing their way up volcanic peaks and camping high in the mountains. They spoke with natives who had never seen white people and who have no communication links to other villages.

Woetzel also says he was meticulous about his interviews, testing the natives’ credibility by showing them sketches of animals they knew would be familiar to them as well as creatures they would never have seen. He carefully questioned the witnesses about the timing of their sightings and recorded every detail they described.

“They weren’t trying to pull the wool over our eyes,” Woetzel said. “In fact, they couldn’t believe we were looking for this thing. They were like, ‘No way. You must be looking for lost treasure or something.'”

Woetzel’s translator, a native pastor who grew up in the mainland of Papua New Guinea, was also familiar with the Ropen. And in one village, Woetzel learned of an Austrian pilot who told of nearly colliding with a large flying creature in the early 80’s.

Guided by witnesses’ descriptions, Woetzel set up camp near large bodies of water, where he hoped the nocturnal fisherman would fly in for a snack. One night, he says, he saw a large, glowing object pass low over the horizon then disappear before he could power up the camcorder and night vision binoculars. But he never spotted the Ropen.

After returning to the mainland – so filthy from his journey that a hotel clerk at first refused him the corporate discount – Woetzel spent a day studying some strange wood carvings on display in Port Moresby. The indigenous carvings depict a witch doctor sitting beneath a lizard-like creature with a long neck, scaly wings and a beak.

The carving bears a strong resemblance to the Ropen, Woetzel says, and suggests that the animal was known by at least some people in centuries past. “How would they have known to carve this thing?” he said.

Strange beasts have captivated imaginations and made appearances in literature from the days of the Old Testament to the days of the Internet, Woetzel says. The ancient Greek researcher Herodotus writes of winged serpents, and Medieval authors talk of flying reptiles and dragons. In this century, reports of large flying beasts have come from Zambia, Kenya and the United States

Nor is Woetzel the only local intellectual to undertake a quest for a larger-than-life creature. Robert Rines, founder of the Franklin Pierce Law Center in Concord, is well known for his expeditions to Scotland in search of the famed Loch Ness monster.

Woetzel became fascinated with dinosaurs as a child and recalls a high school trip to the Boston Museum of Science that kindled his interest in the origin of life. A physics major in college, he began reading extensively and debating evolutionists. He succeeded his father as president over CCR Data Systems, a company that provides computerized cash registers systems for stores and restaurants, but remained intrigued by science. He began researching evidence of extant dinosaurs and started a Web site to display his findings.

In 2001, Woetzel traveled to Cameroon in search of a beast called li’kela-bembe. He never spotted the creature, but his research convinced the BBC to send a crew to the region.

Woetzel learned of the Ropen through a friend who runs the Creation Evidence Museum in Texas and has traveled to the island himself. He and his partner spent about $10,000 on the trip, including the rental and purchase of high-tech equipment.

If a real dinosaur were found, Woetzel believes it would lend credence to creationism and cast doubt on evolution. “If you can’t trust (evolutionists) that dinosaurs became extinct 50 million years ago, how can you trust them that apes evolved into man in three million years?” he said. “And how come this creature hasn’t changed a whit in 50 million years?”

Jessica Bolker, associate professor of zoology at the University of New Hampshire, says plenty of modern-day animals and plants resemble their ancient ancestors. The coelacanth, a fish found in African marine waters, and the horsetail fern, for example, are known as “living fossils” because they retain what appear to be primitive traits, she said. Nor would the discovery of a Ropen shake the foundations of evolution. “Even if this pterosaur is really out there, it wouldn’t constitute any evidence or argument against evolutionary theory,” she said.

But Bolker says she doubts very much the Ropen is out there. “Now matter how much scientists want to believe the truth of extraordinary reports, we need strong evidence that can potentially allow claims to be questioned or disproved-not just assertions that can’t be backed up or verified,” she said.

Responsible scientists – such as the Cornell researchers who announced the re-discovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker – confirm and check their findings before making any public announcements, Bolker said. “The end result is that we all know we can really trust and believe that that bird is still out there,” she said.

But Woetzel believes that scientists such as Bolker simply aren’t interested in evidence of modern-day dinosaurs, however compelling it may be. He doesn’t suggest anything so sinister as a conspiracy, but he believes the evolutionary theory is so firmly entrenched in academia that scientists are unwilling to consider evidence that potentially contradicts it.

In contrast to the scientific community, though, Woetzel says the general public overwhelmingly believes in God and that nearly half of Americans believe God created the earth (another third believe God guided the evolutionary process).

As he left the island, Woetzel passed out disposable cameras to the villagers and told them to report to his translator if they were able to pinpoint a location where the creature regularly eats or sleeps. If and when they do, he’ll be back on the pterosaur’s trail.