The owner of 21 tropical islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea says he never threatened to sell them to China and his main aim is to save the turtles that nest there.
Ian Gowrie-Smith, an Australian businessman and investor, bought the Conflict Islands, which lie less than 1,000km from the Australian coast, almost two decades ago.
The largely uninhabited atolls are a nesting ground for critically endangered hawksbill and green turtles, whose breeding season begins within weeks. Some then migrate to the Great Barrier Reef.
Gowrie-Smith had been talking about selling the islands or developing partnerships to support the conservation work for several years, and hoped the Australian government could work with PNG, or by supporting a charity, to protect the breeding grounds.
The “atoll custodian” told Guardian Australia he contacted the office of the foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, in June to discuss the future of the land, but grew frustrated waiting for a response.
“Here’s an opportunity to protect not only the area but the Great Barrier Reef’s conservation – that in itself should have been enough of a reason for someone to reply and say this is a pretty important site,” he said.
In August that frustration led him to appear on A Current Affair, which focused on the “danger” if the islands should “fall into Chinese hands”.
But Gowrie-Smith said any suggestion he was threatening to sell the islands to China was entirely wrong.
“I don’t have any intention of selling these islands to the CCP,” Gowrie-Smith said.
“The point that’s been lost is that whomever I might sell it to may in turn decide to sell at some future point in time to a foreign nation that may or may not be friendly.”
The islands could theoretically be strategically important for China as there is a deep seaport and an airstrip.
The foreign affairs department told Guardian Australia the government was now “engaging directly” with Gowrie-Smith about the islands.
Thanks to erosion, climate change and shifting sands, the turtles have struggled to find somewhere to lay their eggs safe from human and animal predators, or from the seas themselves.
The Conflict Islands Conservation Initiative has employed rangers to protect and re-home eggs. They scoop the eggs out of danger and carry them in ziplock bags to a safer beach where they are reburied until they hatch. The project, which Gowrie-Smith said cost about $1m a year, has been supported by not-for-profits and by the cruise ships that have brought visitors to the islands.
“That is the dominant activity of the islands,” Gowrie-Smith said. “We’ve got a turtle breeding season starting in a month’s time and we’re underfunded,” he said.
When Anthony Albanese was asked if he would talk to Gowrie-Smith about buying the islands, the prime minister said there were more than 500 in the area and Australian taxpayers were not in a position to buy real estate across the Pacific.
“Think about the implications if sellers of assets came through the media, saying ‘I want Australia to buy this or else there’s implications, we’ll sell it to China’,” he said. “Think about where that ends.”
But Gowrie-Smith said he had made it clear he understood it would not be politically acceptable for Australia to buy the islands.
He said he would discuss with the government of PNG what should happen to the islands.
A Dfat spokesperson said Australia was also “engaged with the PNG government on the future of the Conflict Islands”.
“Decisions relating to the Conflict Islands, including their potential sale or further preservation, are subject to relevant PNG laws and ultimately a matter for the PNG government,” the spokesperson said.
“The PNG government has recently stated that it is considering declaring the Conflict Islands as a conservation protected area.”
PNG deputy prime minister, John Rosso, has said “there will be no sale”, according to PNG’s Post-Courier newspaper.
“The Conflict Islands … will remain in PNG hands and also we want to retain it as conservation for the country.”