Sperm Whales Physeter macrocephalus are the largest of the toothed whales found in the deep waters of the world’s oceans. In India, their sightings and strandings have been reported from several coastal states. Of late, there are growing cases of illegal trade of ambergris derived from Sperm Whales in India.
AMBERGRIS IS A SPERM WHALE’S VOMIT
Ambergris is a waxy substance formed in the intestines of Sperm Whales and is a highly valued product used in perfumery (Srinivasan, 2015). It is directly extracted from the whale (body ambergris), found floating in the ocean (floatsam) or washed up on the shore (jetsam). Due to its high value in the market, ambergris is often called the ‘floating gold’ and ‘treasure of the sea’.
Sperm Whales feast on large quantities of Cephalopods, such as squids which pass into the gut leading to a series of biological events forming ‘ambergris’ that helps protect their internal organs from prickly beaks and pens of Cephalopods. Sperm Whales either defecate or vomit out ambergris once it grows in size in their gut to avoid intestinal obstruction (Kemp, 2012).
Ambergris is found in lumps with a grey to dark brown colour with grainy pieces of shells and beaks. Rarest forms are found in light grey or pure white colour. Deposits of ambergris are sometimes seen floating on the seas or washed on the shorelines worldwide.
THE GLOBAL POPULATION OF SPERM WHALES IS DECLINING
In the mid-19th and 20th centuries, Sperm Whales were hunted massively to procure ambergris, oil, and other valuable products (Whitehead, 2018). The large-scale whale hunting resulted in drastic declines in their population and spurred international bans on whale hunting. IUCN has accorded Sperm Whales an ‘Endangered’.
A 2022 study by Whitehead & Shin estimated the global population of Sperm Whales to be about 850,000 individuals, which reflects a 57% decline in their numbers in 310 years caused by massive whaling in the 1840’s and 1960’s. This study also suggests that the whale populations are slightly recovering in undisturbed areas but largely remain on the decline due to growing anthropogenic pressures in the sea (shipping) impacts.
SPERM WHALES ARE ECOLOGICALLY IMPORTANT
Sperm whales play a crucial role in nourishing marine ecosystems. When diving to feed, Sperm Whales enhance nutrient mixing and transportation in different gradients of the ocean (Roman et al., 2014). When they die, their carcasses sink to the sea floor and form one of the vital sources of organic nutrients in the deep sea (Smith, 2006).
AMBERGRIS TRADE IS ILLEGAL
The Sperm Whale is protected under Schedule II of the Wildlife (Protection) Act, 1972 and therefore, it is illegal to sell, transfer, possess or trade in ambergris in India.
Globally, Sperm Whales are listed in Appendix I of the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). However, ambergris is not covered in CITES provisions as it is considered a naturally excreted waste product and trade of which is legal in many countries. However, India, Australia and the United States prohibit its trade and possession in their domestic laws.
AMBERGRIS TRADE IS BECOMING A GROWING CONCERN IN INDIA
Despite the protection status of Sperm Whales and the prohibition on collecting and using ambergris, it continues to be illegally traded for use in luxury perfumes. Ambergris finds its application in the luxe line of perfumes because of its excellent fixative and stabilising properties, preventing fragrance from evaporating.
In India, law enforcement agencies have seized nearly 100 kg of ambergris in 26 incidents during 2022, as reported in the media. Pinjarkar (2022) and Press Trust of India (2016) reported that the seized ambergris was being shipped to international destinations such as Sri Lanka. In nations with thriving legal international markets for ambergris, its source is often obscure and has been suspected to be illegal in several cases (Butler, 2021; Wilding, 2021)
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IMPORTANCE OF THE #WORLDWHALEDAY
World Whale day is celebrated on the Third Sunday of February every year. It was started to raise awareness for humpback whales in Hawaii. Today, the event is recognised globally to promote awareness for the conservation of all whales.
Butler, G. (2021). Inside the Secretive, Lucrative and Occasionally Violent World of Finding and Selling Whale Poop. Vice. https://www.vice.com/en/article/n7bp5q/whale-poop-ambergris-perfume-industry
Roman, J., Estes, J. A., Morissette, L., Smith, C., Costa, D., McCarthy, J., Nation, J., Nicol, S., Pershing, A., & Smetacek, V. (2014). Whales as marine ecosystem engineers. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12(7), 377–385. https://doi.org/10.1890/130220
Srinivasan, T. M. (2015). Historical Note: Ambergris in Perfumery in the Past and Present Indian Context and the Western World. Indian Journal of History of Science, 50(2). https://doi.org/10.16943/ijhs/2015/v50i2/48241
Whitehead, H., & Shin, M. (2022). Current global population size, post-whaling trend and historical trajectory of sperm whales. Scientific Reports, 12(1), 19468. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-24107-7