In French amber gris means grey coloured fossilized tree resin. However ambergris is a solid waxy substance produced in the intestines of sperm whales. It could be black, grey, different shades of brown, or yellowish vaguely resembling the tree resin amber. That’s how ambergris got its name even though it was later found to have originated from sperm whales.

Smooth and shiny squid beaks are always seen in ambergris because it is formed to protect the whale from sharp objects which need to be expelled. The strong smell of this intestinal secretion that comes out of either end of a whale is surprisingly neither that of vomit or faeces, and its smell changes as it dries.

Demand for Ambergris

Whales are now protected worldwide, but the ever growing demand for ambergris continues. Commercial whaling ended in 1986 prior to which bloody harpooning of sperm whales occurred for ambergris (found in stomachs of dead sperm whales) and other products such as spermaceti and sperm whale oil used as a machine lubricant, and for whale meat of course.

Beauty Without Cruelty had also campaigned towards achieving the international ban on whaling and used to recommend the use of jojoba oil in place of sperm whale oil. The International Whaling Commission kept advising quotas to be reduced. Around 1977 we got several institutions like the Central Arid Zone Research Institute, Jodhpur, Rajasthan, Maharashtra’s Agricultural Universities at Parbhani and Rahuri, and the Avatar Meher Baba Trust at Meherabad near Ahmednagar, to successfully grow jojoba (Simmondsia chinenisis) seed in the hope that India would stop importing sperm oil and use jojoba oil instead.

During the 35 years since the ban Japan, Norway and Iceland have killed nearly 40,000 whales for their meat, oil, blubber and cartilage used in pharmaceuticals and health supplements. In addition, deliberate hunting of small whales and dolphins continues to take place around the world for food, bait, currency or supposed traditional medicines and charms.

In demand for…

Ambergris is best known for its use as a fixative in perfumes alongside other animal origin ones like musk/kasturi (deer and musk rat), civet/gandhamarjara (cat), operculum/nakhla (mullosk), castoreum (beaver/rat) and hyraceum (mammal resembling a guinea pig).

The Chinese use ambergris not only in fragrances, but in medicine and as aphrodisiacs.

Ambar as ambergris is called in India, has for centuries been utilised as agnijara in Ayurvedic and Unani systems of medicine, and in Homeopathy as ambra grisea.

Ambergris has been historically used worldwide as an ingredient in food and drink, and ambergris-laced sugar fetches a high price.

Here, There and Everywhere

Till 2020 hardly any ambergris was found in India and fishermen did not know what it exactly was – often thinking it was jelly fish and therefore not evincing any interest. For example, in 2013 fishermen of the Chinnoor coastal village had mid-sea stumbled upon a huge lump of ambergris which weighed about 15 kgs and was considered a “rare find” – they deposited it with the panchayat officials who informed the Customs Department at Cuddalore Old Town, who took custody of the substance.

In January 2020, 5 kgs of ambergris was washed ashore at Devanampattinam in Cuddalore district, and was taken over by the Fisheries as well as Forest Departments of Tamil Nadu and proposed to be destroyed.

Only 6 months earlier, after a gap of a year, in June 2019 two persons had been arrested and Rs 1.90 crore worth of ambergris had been seized in Mumbai. Six seizures also took place in Mumbai and Thane till mid-2021.

Then in May 2021 ambergris weighing 5.3 kg valued at Rs 10 lakh per kg in India, but worth Rs 7 crore in the international Arab and Chinese markets, was seized from 3 persons who were detained by the Ahmedabad Police.

Just 2 months later in July 2021, officials of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB) Chennai, along with local forest and police personnel arrested an 8-member gang trying to sell 8.25 kgs of ambergris worth about Rs 8 crore at Narsaraopet in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh.

Rs 30 crore worth of 18 kgs ambergris was also seized by the WCCB during July 2021 in Chettuva (a coastal village of Kerala) from 3 persons.

A month later in August 2021 the Pune forest division arrested 6 persons for dealing in 3 kgs of ambergris worth Rs 3.5 crore.

Also in August 2021 the WCCB were responsible for the biggest ever seizure of ambergris weighing 80 kgs in Bengaluru for which 5 persons were arrested.

Around the same time 4 persons belonging to a Kerala-based gang were nabbed in Mangadu, near Chennai, for attempting to sell ambergris worth Rs 22 crore; 3 persons near Thoothukudi with ambergris worth Rs 23 crore; and, 9 persons near Thiruporur with ambergris valued at Rs 13 crore.

Again in September 2021, 11 kgs of ambergris was confiscated from 4 persons in Bengaluru. Coincidentally on the same day 2 persons were arrested in Mumbai for peddling nearly 6 kgs of ambergris in Mumbai.

A fortnight later 2 persons from the Lakshadweep Islands who were trying to sell 1.4 kgs of ambergris valued at more than Rs 1.4 crore at Kochi, were arrested by the WCCB and officials of the Kerala Forest Department.

On 25 October 2021 the Tamil Nadu Forest Department officials on a tip that a gang was trying to sell ambergris in local and international markets, laid a trap at Tiruvarur and seized 8 kgs of ambergris worth Rs 8 crore and arrested 2 persons who were remanded at Nannilam prison.

Sudden Smuggling

Why is there a sudden spike of ambergris seizures in India? Surely many more tried to sell and sold ambergris undetected. Ambergris can, thanks to smugglers from India’s coastal belt using ships, end up any where in the world like in Dubai or Europe where the demand is said to be currently high.

Officials from coastal Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka felt that the sudden spike in ambergris seizures was because of greater awareness among the coastal fishing community resulting from stories in the media of fishermen whose lives are said to have favourably changed overnight on finding ambergris, as well as a slowdown in international trade due to flight restrictions after Covid-19, however, there were few buyers within India.
Page last updated on 08/11/21