Six Seizures of ambergris in Mumbai and Thane over the last month have highlighted the shadowy but lucrative trade in this waxy substance, at times described as whale vomit, and sometimes as whale faeces. Prior to these, there have been only two such seizures in recent memory, once in 2019, and before that in 2018.
Ambergris is an intestinal secretion in the sperm whale which coats sharp, hard parts of cuttlefish and squid — the mammal’s favourite food — that it may have swallowed, so that these do no damage inside. Once ejected by the whale, it floats on the surface of the water, and its colour can range from white to yellow, amber, brown and black.
Fresh ambergris is said to have a faecal odour but as it ages and stays afloat in the water, it develops a fragrance, which is why it has been a valued ingredient in perfume for centuries.
In the modern-day perfume industry, ambergris is used as a stabiliser in fine perfumes. Today, one kg of ambergris could fetch the fancy price of Rs 1 crore.
Buying and selling ambergris is against the law in India as it is a product of the sperm whale, a protected species under Schedule-I of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The high price ambergris fetches also triggers the suspicion that a whale might have been killed for it. However, in some European countries with a flourishing perfume industry, it is classified as “refuse” and considered legal.
Officials of states along the country’s coastline like Maharashtra, Gujarat, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka that have seen ambergris seizures, offer a couple of reasons for the sudden spike in seizures: greater awareness among coastal communities about its value including from social media, and a probable slowdown in the international trade due to flight restrictions on account of Covid.
The Mumbai Police is also investigating a lead obtained from the interrogation of an arrested accused that a couple of tons of ambergris was dumped in India earlier this year by alleged smugglers for it to be sold within the country, and that chunks of this large quantity are now being sold off through different groups of people across various states.
Ahmedabad DCP (zone VII) Premsukh Delu, whose team led a 5 kg ambergris seizure last month, said fishermen in Junagadh, Kutch, got hold of the ambergris. “They then looked for buyers in areas like Ahmedabad and sent it through a string of agents,” Delu told The Indian Express.
In Mumbai and Thane, of the six seizures that have taken place in the last two months, two were from fishing communities in Virar, Alibaug, two from Gujarat and two from Karnataka. A crime branch officer said, “Generally, when they cannot find sellers for some time, they start seeking out agents and send the product to metros like Mumbai and Thane to find sellers.” That is when they get caught too.
An officer from Unit X of the Mumbai crime branch, which that was involved in three seizures along with the forest department in the past month, said one of the arrested accused told them nearly a couple of tons of ambergris was dropped in India at various places along the the east and west coast in February-March from outside the country. And it is small parts of this ambergris that is making its way across the country. “We are not sure how accurate the information is but we are trying to verify it,” the officer told The Indian Express.
An inspector from Mumbai crime branch (Unit III), also involved in a seizure, said in the recent years there has been a lot of information on ambergris available online, including on YouTube. “Due to media publicity, especially of stories of fishermen whose lives are said to have changed overnight on finding ambergris, coastal communities are well aware of the possibility of such a material floating around and actively seek it,” the officer said.
Crime branch senior inspector Indrajit More (Unit IV) said the six persons they arrested during one of the seizures, said they had found out about ambergris from a viral video. They had shared the value of their find through WhatsApp groups as they tried to sell it. “Some antique dealers from Ahmedabad got interested in the product and, eventually, they contacted three middlemen in Mumbai. All six were arrested by us,” More said.
“They were trying to sell the ambergris but there has been no demand since the past three-four months,” the officer said.
An officer from Thane crime branch that carried out one of the seizures said the accused in their case was trying to sell the ambergris for a long time but had found no buyers. Deputy Conservator of Forests (Thane) Gajendra Hire, who has been involved in several seizures, said that it was possible that due to the impact of lockdown and resulting flight restrictions, international smuggling of ambergris has been hit.
“And since they cannot sell it directly to agents in countries that would be interested in buying, there are attempts being made to sell it within the country itself. That could be one of the reasons why there have been several such cases coming up recently,” Hire told The Indian Express.
Another issue that the police are concerned about is whether the seizure material is actually ambergris or some fake material. Marine biologist Harshal Karve, who accompanied some of the police teams in Mumbai to check the seized substance, said identifying ambergris from fakes is not easy. “We conduct tests like checking if the material seized melts at 60 degrees Celsius and emits white fumes at 100 degrees Celsius. Another important property of ambergris is that it should float on water. However, in spite of these characteristics matching, it is possible that the product is fake. Only the forensic lab report can confirm if it is genuine ambergris,” Karve said.
There are no laboratories in Maharashtra that can test ambergris so most police stations in the city send samples to forest department laboratories in Hyderabad, Kolkata and Gujarat. The forensic reports on ambergris seized recently have not yet been received as yet.
If it turns out that the material is not ambergris, the police will have to remove sections related to the Wildlife Protection Act pressed against the accused. An officer, however, said that they can then invoke sections of cheating, as the person would be cheating a prospective buyer by selling a fake product.