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Explained: What is Ambergris and why is this ‘whale vomit’ so valuable?

In the last fortnight, in two separate incidents, the Mumbai Police arrested five people and seized nearly 9 kg of Ambergris or 'whale vomit'. What is Ambergris and how valuable is it?

Written by Mohamed Thaver , Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: June 25, 2021 1:51:11 pm
The Mumbai Police has seized nearly 9 kg of Ambergris over the last fortnight.

In the past few weeks there have been two cases where the Mumbai Police has arrested five persons trying to sell Ambergris or whale vomit. What is so valuable about Ambergris and why is it being smuggled?

What is Ambergris?

Ambergris, French for grey amber, is generally referred to as whale vomit. However, Christopher Kemp, the author of ‘Floating gold: A Natural and (unnatural) history of Ambergris’, says this is not right. A sperm whale eats several thousand squid beaks a day. He says occasionally, a beak makes it way to the whale’s stomach and into its looping convoluted intestines where it becomes ambergris through a complex process, and may ultimately be excreted by the whale.

It is a solid waxy substance that floats around the surface of the water body and at times settles on the coast.

German physician Franz Schwediawer in 1783 called it “preternaturally hardened whale dung”.

Is it Ambergris valuable?

This excretion is so valuable it is referred to as floating gold. As per the latest estimates given by Mumbai Police, 1 kg of ambergris is worth Rs 1 crore in the international market. The reason for its high cost is its use in the perfume market, especially to create fragrances like musk. It is believed to be in high demand in countries like Dubai that have a large perfume market. Ancient Egyptians used it as incense. It is also believed to be used in some traditional medicines.

Why are the laws on Ambergris?

Due to its high value, Ambergris has been a target for smugglers especially in coastal areas. There have been several cases where the coastline of Gujarat has been used for such smuggling. Since the sperm whale is a protected species, hunting of the whale is not allowed. However, smugglers are known to have illegally targeted the fish in order to obtain the valuable Ambergris from its stomach.

However, as per Kemp, Ambergris is produced only by an estimated one per cent of sperm whales.

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What were the recent cases in Mumbai where Ambergris was seized and arrests made?

Nearly 9 kg of Ambergris was seized by the Mumbai Police over the past 15 days. In the first case, 2.2 kg was seized from three men in Mulund area. The police believe they obtained Ambergris from Gujarat and were looking for sellers.

In the second case, two arrests were made from Lower Parel on Wednesday and the police found 7.7 kg of the valuable material from the duo. In both cases the police are trying to trace the owner and purchasers of Ambergris.

What were the recent cases in Mumbai where Ambergris was seized and arrests made?

Nearly 9 kg of Ambergris was seized by the Mumbai Police over the past 15 days. In the first case, 2.2 kg was seized from three men in Mulund area. The police believe they obtained Ambergris from Gujarat and were looking for sellers.

In the second case, two arrests were made from Lower Parel on Wednesday and the police found 7.7 kg of the valuable material from the duo. In both cases the police are trying to trace the owner and purchasers of Ambergris.

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