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.

BWC was shocked to know that there exists an online UK based business called Ambergris Connect which provides a global service to first determine the genuineness of the ambergris and then facilitate introductions between sellers and buyers.

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.

In December 2021, 2 persons attempted to sell 550 gms of ambergris worth Rs 1.1 crore in Pune. It was claimed to have been obtained in from a person in Karanja in Nashik, who in turn had received it via courier from some one.

Ambergris worth Rs 1 crore was also seized in December 2021 in Thane from 2 persons who were from Cuttack and Varanasi. Just a few days earlier, in November 2021 a man had been caught in Mumbai with 5.5 kgs of ambergris worth Rs 5 to 6 crore.

2022 began with the Police recovering 21 kgs of ambergris from 2 persons during a vehicle check at Tenkasi in Tamil Nadu; they had brought it from Chennai.

Later in January 2022, 3.4 kgs was seized in Maharashtra from 6 persons who were arrested at Kolhapur but they were all from Sangli.

In February 2022 the Karnataka Police arrested 6 men and seized 3,480 kgs of ambergris worth Rs 3.48 crore at Konaje. They said that they had obtained it from a fisherman of Tamil Nadu.

A few days later in mid-February 2022 the Mangaluru Police arrested 4 persons (2 peddlers from Kerala and 2 from Karnataka) for attempting to sell ambergris worth Rs 2.2 crore. Along with the ambergris, their mobile phones, cash and car were also seized.

In March 2022 The Madurai District Police arrested and handed over to the Forest Department 3 persons along with the ambergris worth Rs 2.55 crore they were smuggling, cash and the vehicle in which they were travelling from Sivaganga to Natham in Dindigul in order to sell it. 

In November 2022 following a tip-off, 5 persons were arrested by the Police in Pune and about 5.29 kgs worth over Rs 5 crore of ambergris was seized.

Again in February 2023, 5.7 kgs of ambergris worth another Rs 5 crore was seized (along with vehicles) and 2 persons were arrested by the Sangli police.

This was followed by 18.10 kgs worth Rs 31.67 crore seized at Tamil Nadu’s Tuticorin coast in May 2023 by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI). During the past 2 years the DRI had alone seized 40.52 kgs of ambergris intended to be smuggled out of India from the Tuticorin coast.

A month later in June 2023, the Central Crime Branch (Karnataka) sleuths arrested 2 men from TN and recovered 6.50 kgs ambergris from them saying they had purchased it from Kerala.

In October 2023 the forest department personnel nabbed 3 persons in while patrolling at night near a hotel at Mankoli in Bhiwandi taluka of Maharashtra and recovered from them Rs 85 lakh worth of ambergris.

In February 2024 Rs 5.60 crore worth of ambergris was seized by the Konkan Railway Police.

In June 2024 19.2 kgs of ambergris was seized in Tiruchi and 5 persons arrested for its illegal trade which they had been involved in for 2 years.

Again in June 2024 ambergris worth 3.2 crore was found on 2 persons who had come from Ratnagari district to to sell it in Pune.

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. The Illegal Trade of Marine Species in India 2015-21 Report by the Wildlife Conservation Society recorded 36 ambergris seizures.

Interestingly, in November 2023 following DNA analysis, it was revealed that 11 cases in which 77.17 kgs of ambergris had been seized in Kerala since January 2022, was fake! BWC wonders if this so-called fake ambergris was destroyed or returned to the persons involved because if returned, it could very well be hawked again.

Page last updated on 25/06/24