Officials in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu seized 8 kilograms of ambergris, commonly known as whale faeces, worth a little more than $1 million and arrested two suspects caught with the contraband in a sting operation.
Ambergris is a rare and highly valuable commodity that has been globally coveted by the perfume industry for hundreds of years.
“We’ve seen these stories where fishermen communities have found ambergris and it completely changed their fortunes overnight, simply because they are in countries where it's legal to trade them,” Sumanth Bindumadhav, senior manager of wildlife disaster response at Humane Society International, told VICE World News.
No such luck for Indian fishermen though. While the sale of ambergris is legal in most European countries where it is classified as refuse, it is criminalized under India’s wildlife protection laws.
The waxy, rock-like substance is produced in the intestinal tract of one out of every 100 sperm whales. When expelled by the animal into the sea, ambergris can develop fragrant properties over time, which makes it a valuable ingredient in perfumes. The substance can fetch up to $25 per gram.
The latest raid on Oct. 25 was part of a sting operation conducted by wildlife officials, in which they posed as prospective buyers to trap the suspects. The case adds to the growing list of ambergris seizures in India. In July alone, six ambergris seizures were reported in the cities of Mumbai and Thane.
Animal rights experts worry that the rise in ambergris trade on the black market and increasing awareness of the lucrative object on social media can spell doom for sperm whale communities, which are a protected species in the country.
“While there used to be a time where people would incidentally find ambergris floating around in the ocean, what it could lead to is people killing sperm whales in large numbers and looking for [ambergris] simply because the probability of otherwise finding it is so minimal,” said Bindumadhav.
Conservationists believe the key to solve the problem lies in industries eliminating the demand for ambergris and other items derived from animals. “The value of animal articles needs to be driven down extensively. There have to be alternatives for these products in 2021.”
Follow Rimal Farrukh on Twitter.