‘Ambergris’ seized in Kerala fake, reveals DNA analysis
In 2021, five ambergris seizure cases were reported in Kerala. The DNA test results of only two of those cases are currently available and they were negative.
KOCHI: Of late, Kerala has reported increasing ‘seizure’ of ambergris — a highly valued substance originating in the intestines of sperm whales. But there’s a twist in the tale. After DNA tests and expert analysis, it turns out that not one haul announced by enforcement agencies contained real ambergris, officials told TNIE.
A senior officer with the Kerala forest department said the trade in ambergris – which is formed from the vomit of sperm whales and is used to make medicines and perfumes – is similar to the trade in deer-musk pods where a majority of the musk seized turned out to be fake. Since January 2022, the forest department has registered 11 cases and recovered 77. 17kg of ambergris. However, all of that has turned out to be fake.
In 2021, five ambergris seizure cases were reported in Kerala. The DNA test results of only two of those cases are currently available and they were negative. When such cases are reported, the forest department takes the assistance of experts for a preliminary inspection to gauge whether the seized wildlife product is original.
“The interesting part is that we are yet to see the original ambergris in Kerala,” an officer said. “We know about it through literature and the content available online. All that we find here are artificially made substances or vomits of other whale species, which have no value like the ambergris from sperm whales. After recovering the ‘ambergris’, we send photographs to experts to verify its authenticity. The samples of all the seized ‘ambergris’ were sent to the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology for DNA testing and none have turned out to be real.”
Last year, fishermen from Thiruvananthapuram surrendered the ‘ambergris’ they found in the sea to the forest department. But that too turned out to be the vomit of another whale species.
“We expected that particular sample to be real ambergris as it looked similar. But the test proved it to be the vomit of another whale species, and not of a sperm whale. Though sperm whales inhabit the sea off the Indian coast, ambergris is very rare. Experts say that sperm whales’ undigested feed comes out as foam. The substance turns into ambergris outside after being conditioned by nature, taking several years,” the officer said.
A fisheries department official said that until recently, the fishing community was unaware of ambergris but the hype over its price has ended up promoting the trade of fake products. He said the guidelines on not revealing the value of seized wildlife products is not being followed. “The people who are arrested with ‘ambergris’ are mostly brokers and agents. Fake ambergris is making rounds in the local market itself. An agent sells it at a meagre price to another agent. The buyer will be aware that it is fake but will use it to dupe another person to make some profit. Ambergris normally weighs in the range of 5kg, so it is mostly fake when a seizure of 10 to 20kg of whale vomit is reported,” he said.
Last month, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) intercepted two Palakkad natives with 8.7kg of ‘ambergris’ after they arrived in Kochi to trade it. DRI caught them from a hotel. The duo and the seized ‘ambergris’ were handed over to the forest department.
“We have sent the sample for DNA testing to verify whether it is ambergris. The arrested persons are detained until they are granted bail by court or the seized contraband turns out to be fake,” the forest officer said.
Known as floating gold, the original ambergris is used in medicines and potions and as a spice in eastern cultures, while in the west, it is used to stabilise the scent of fine perfumes. Original ambergris is valued at D2 crore/kg