ON a lonely beach on the east coast of peninsula Malaysia, on a dark summer night where the only noise comes from the waves lapping against the shore, a miracle is about to happen. From as far away as the Atlantic Ocean, from as long ago as the 14th century, a rendezvous with life - and death - is about to take place. For the long sandy beach at Rantau Abang is both maternity ward and graveyard for some of the most amazing creatures in the world - the giant leatherback turtles. Weighing up to three quarters of a ton, more than three metres long and possibly - some claim - 600 years old, they are a living testimony to the marvels of nature. Once out of their familiar aquatic element, the turtles are immediately plunged into a hostile environment. Their limbs are designed for swimming, not manoeuvring on land. Sitting silently at the top of the beach are any number of spectators, once solely villagers convinced of the leatherback eggs' aphrodisiac qualities and therefore high market value, now more often than not gangs of sightseers who want to witness one of the most incredible natural feats of determination and endurance. But ironically it is the tourists who have become an extra threat to the leatherbacks. Flash photography, glaring torches, even outright hooliganism like pulling flippers and riding on the turtles' backs, placed a fragile cycle of life in jeopardy. This has now been controlled, and loutish behaviour is severely punished. But the turtles' problems do not end here. Some instinct tells the leatherbacks that once they have struggled up the beach and crossed the high water line, they should dig a decoy hole. They then cross to where they will really lay their eggs, scoop out the sand with their back flippers, and commence laying. About 100 eggs is a usual number, and of these one will be lucky to survive the travails that lie along the rocky path to adulthood. Round as ping pong balls, they fall together like caviar. Then, with more huffing and puffing, their mother camouflages her offspring before bulldozing back down the beach, ploughing a furrow through the sand, her labour of procreation complete. As she eases down to the shore, the leatherback very often pauses to regain her energy, tears trickling from her eyes to rid them of grains of sand. When the leviathan hits the water, she is transformed from a lumbering, defenceless hulk, into a graceful, powerful beast who is mistress of the waves. Back on shore, the hatching process has already begun, but it will be 55 days before the first baby turtles emerge from their sandy nest to scamper to the sea, guarded only by fortune and guided by some inherent homing instinct. During those two months some eggs will be taken by predators - man or crab or even insect - and as the babies make their break for the sea many will be picked off by wheeling birds above. Others will be snaffled by larger sea creatures before they are more than a few days old. But this is the process of nature, and has gone on for thousands of years. What is more alarming is that the numbers of turtles coming ashore to lay is in sharp decline. If the trend continues, one day there could be no more nights of struggle and triumph on the sands of Rantau Abang. Abdul Rahman is at the forefront of the fight to bring back the turtles, but the news is less than heartening. As head of the Turtle Information Centre at Rantau Abang and its adjacent research unit he aims to educate visitors and more importantly, study the turtles' behaviour and oversee their hatching. The problem of the declining numbers of leatherbacks is variously ascribed to pollution, over-fishing, changing sea currents, or perhaps a combination of all three. In Malaysia, certainly, petro chemical developments to the south of Rantau Abang are unlikely to have helped the situation. Mr Rahman and his staff gather up many of the eggs to be hatched artificially in their laboratories. This year, a few leatherbacks started coming early, possibly drawn by an early lunar cycle. Normally the peak time to catch the start of the struggle of this particular trial of life is between May and September. The villagers from Rantau Abang have been co-opted into helping preserve what makes their particular stretch of beach something more than sand and sea, and they act as guides, offer specially built shelters for waiting spectators, and help enforce the rules. As long as the conditions are benign in the oceans where the turtles wander year round, and do not deteriorate further, the leatherbacks can be assured of a continued welcome at Rantau Abang.