There's an animal that looks like a dinosaur on the beach. Its fat, pointed tail is dug deep into the ground, like an anchor for its huge body, and its large, paddle-like wings slash through the sand. It is a powerful animal, almost as long as a person is tall and several times heavier, judging by its massive armour-plated back, replete with long, parallel ridges. The cuirass feels soft, like tanned leather. The animal is exhausted. She has just given birth to several dozen offspring. She groans and cries thick greenish tears between attempts to heave herself from the ground and crawl towards the sea. An array of stars shine brightly enough to illuminate her spiky armour as it hits a silver wave. Three more waves and she has vanished. Staff at global conservation body WWF promised a modern miracle but what I have just encountered looks more like a throwback to pre-history - which turtles are; they've barely changed since the Jurassic era. Last night, I followed biologist Made Artha Jaya to another stretch of beach. As part of his ongoing research into migration patterns, Jaya caught a few olive turtles and equipped them with radio transmitters. But the animals he was dealing with are very different to the leatherback I've just met; in fact, leatherbacks resemble other sea turtles to the same degree as lions resemble tigers. Instead of a shell they have thick, leather-like armour and are much bigger than other turtles. The female on the beach was a comparatively small adult: 158cm from head to tail. Her cousins can grow up to 2.5 metres long and weigh as much as a small car. Predators abound on the beaches where turtles give birth; wild pigs, dogs and monitor lizards dig up poorly hidden nests and devour the eggs. Of those that do hatch, only one out of every 1,000 will live into adulthood. And their worst enemies are human. Indonesia's Papua province, on the island of New Guinea, is blessed with invaluable natural resources but for decades most of its wealth has bypassed the local population, leaving Papuans some of the poorest citizens in the country. Turtles here have long been a source of food and money, so any talk of protecting the endangered animal meets with a lot of local resistance. In the Atlantic Ocean, giant turtles fare well but in the Pacific they're close to extinction, with only 3,000 females nesting each year on the beaches of the world's largest ocean. Like salmon, turtles swim fantastic distances to mate but always come back to their place of birth to lay eggs. Three-quarters of all the leatherbacks that roam the Pacific were born on one of four beaches in northern New Guinea. That's why WWF elected to base its turtle conservation project on the Bird's Head Peninsula, a far-flung corner of Papua. 'It is a very important area, so efforts should be focused here in order to make sure that the leatherback population in the Pacific can recover,' says WWF project manager Creusa Hitipeuw. To describe the Abun marine park as remote is an understatement. It takes six hours to fly from Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, to Sorong, the main city on the northern tip of Papua; then it is an eight-hour journey eastwards by speedboat along the coast. The inside of the speedboat reeks of petrol - the crew have piled up dozens of jerry cans, enough fuel for a return trip. Escaping the head-splitting smell by sitting on the boat's roof, I watch the coast unfold; in front is one of the world's last remaining stretches of virgin tropical forest, probably home to dozens of unknown species. There are only three coastal villages in the 169,000 hectares of the Abun reserve. Their 250 inhabitants live frugally from the products of the forest. A single leatherback can feed dozens of people and despite the animals' best efforts to conceal the location of their nests, it is not difficult to read the signs left in the sand by a creature that weighs several hundred kilograms. Killing and pillaging of nests by the locals did not affect turtle population numbers a great deal until the 1980s, when a ferry service opened the area to the outside world. In the village of Wau - a name that translates as 'turtle' - leatherback products quickly became one of the few resources that could guarantee inflows of money: a new commodity brought in by the ferry. Mama Tabita, a gruff little woman who refers to herself in the third person, is Wau's tribal leader. Mama says she was born on the beach of Warmon, where hundreds of leatherbacks nest every year. 'Back in those days, our parents didn't know money but now Mama does,' she says while massaging her legs with a locally made herbal oil. 'Mama wanted to buy things from the city people, like clothes, rice, sugar, cigarettes. For that Mama needed money. And where could Mama find money if not by selling things to the people from the city?' Among those things - including copra, nuts, fruit and other products from the forest - turtle eggs were the most valuable. Trade was brisk and the turtle population started to dwindle. When the WWF arrived and asked the locals to stop trading in turtle products, negotiations were hard. Eventually, though, the environmentalists managed to convince Mama to halt the practice and the villagers are expected to bend to their leader's will. 'Now Mama is on the lookout. If Mama catches someone eating turtle eggs, she gets mad. Mama is the guardian of the turtles,' she says. Today, Mama is playing host to a group of visitors: WWF people, local government officials and journalists who have come to see how the turtle project is progressing. She's sitting on the plank floor of her kitchen while her daughter-in-law sweats near a wood-fired oven. They are preparing a ramen noodle dinner for 30 and Mama looks self-important. There is no phone service in Wau, no running water and no electricity. Last January, the local government gave a solar panel to the village but the machine broke after a few days of providing electricity and there's no one here with the engineering skills required to fix it. On January 4, a powerful earthquake shook the region. People in Wau ran into the forest and two villagers died in the rubble. Several houses remain in ruins, as do the village's school and both its churches. Little aid has trickled through to this remote area and the children have to study under a black tent donated by the government and oil company BpMigas. Classes are organised by locals but there are no formal lessons because it's difficult to entice teachers to come and live in the village. In these conditions, it's difficult to see how people can be expected to give up an important source of income - the turtles' eggs - in order to save animals that they still see coming to the beach by the dozen. Villagers are being asked to make sure baby turtles hatch in the best possible conditions but the closest medical facility for women giving birth is a two-day ferry ride away. For WWF, there was only one solution. 'We used to focus exclusively on protecting the environment,' says Barnabas Wurlianty, head of the project in Abun. 'But now we've started taking care of the people, too.' WWF employs 40 local men to patrol the beach, monitor the turtles and their eggs and, if necessary, relocate nests that are vulnerable to predators. Each of the monitors makes 1.5 million rupiah (HK$1,100) per month - a huge sum in a village where there is no other employment. 'The WWF cannot work alone, they need us. We agree to collaborate because we benefit from it,' says Demanus Yesawen, head of Saubeba village, a 90-minute speedboat ride from Mama's house. Saubeba has only 30 families. When we drop by, the children shyly line up to be photographed, women smile and attempt to strike up a conversation and the village chief plunges into the forest to kill a deer for his guests' evening meal. IF THE SUCCESS OF WWF's efforts to reconcile the needs of man and turtle seems too good to be true, that's because it is. A woman in Wau says the only reason the people stopped eating turtle eggs is because they are afraid of Mama. The village priest shoos me away when pressed. 'I'm busy', he grumbles, without looking up. 'Go talk to the turtle people, over there at Mama's house.' The plight of the leatherbacks has become a source of discord in Wau. On the morning of our departure, the WWF and local government envoys hold a meeting with the villagers about the turtle issue and the management of the protected area. A man stands up, arms tightly clasped to his chest, his lips quivering. He lashes out at the WWF workers. 'Why do you care so much about the animals? I'm a man. Don't I count? When the earthquake came, where was your speedboat? Where was your money? Where was your help?' He shakes his fist towards Wurlianty. His friends hold him back. He jumps onto the bench that separates him from Mama, who recoils. 'You're an idiot,' he yells at her. Restraint is a way of life elsewhere in Indonesia and such an outburst is startling. Other villagers follow the lead, screaming their complaints. They want motors for their fishing boats. They'd like their schools to be repaired. They want cash. None of this has to do with the protection of the turtles but they feel that if there is money to be given to animals, they should get some too. 'Before the WWF came, we all lived well together. But now the village is split in half,' Andreanus, the leader of the dissidents, says after the meeting. Jealousies are rife, focused not on the aim - protecting turtles - but on the distribution of the international NGO's bounty. As the traditional leader, Mama possesses customary rights on a vast expanse of the village's land, including Warmon beach. She decides who gets the jobs and who gets the money. Most of those who patrol for WWF are close relatives, so people like Andreanus, who aren't, feel aggrieved. 'You have to understand. Papua culture is different from the rest of the country because here we have to manage the land collectively. Therefore, it's difficult to reach agreements when money is at stake,' says Linderd Rouw, a representative from the local government who has thrust himself into the dispute as a mediator. Mama has retreated into her house, frowning. She seems embarrassed by the outburst of her neighbours and their blatant disregard for her authority. She refuses to be photographed. But she's not about to let the turtles down. She has too much to lose. On a wall of her sparsely furnished living room, a yellowing newspaper page hangs against the fading blue paint. On the bottom of the page, there is a story about Mama, the 'turtle hero'. Next to it is a photo of a blond American pop star sipping a soda in her car, her baby on her lap. The headline: 'Britney Spears endangers her child'. I can't help but laugh. In Jakarta, the roads are choked with clapped-out motorbikes carrying whole families: dad behind the wheel with a five-year-old squeezed between his legs; mum squeezed in behind them, struggling to bottle feed a baby that hangs precariously by her side while the eldest daughter clings tight to the rear of the vehicle. None wears a helmet. But Mama's local newspaper blindly followed the western diktat that says an American baby in a sturdy SUV could be in mortal danger because she's in her mother's lap. Standards are elastic. Mama is a global hero because her conservation efforts are aimed at making sure the giant turtle will be part of the next generations' world. She is also a traitor because she has taken issue with some in her village. The turtles may survive but, for now, peace in Wau is illusive. The survival of these strange creatures may mean the demise of Mama's authority.