Ambergris – UPSC Prelims

  • Ambergris is a solid, waxy, flammable substance of a dull grey or blackish colour produced in the digestive system of sperm whales.
  • German physician Franz Schwediawer in 1783 called it “preternaturally hardened whale dung”. This excretion is so valuable it is referred to as floating gold.
  • However, Ambergris is produced only by an estimated 1% of sperm whales.
  • Formation: It is incorrectly referred to as ‘whale vomit’. This is because one of the theories about its formation suggests that it is produced in the gastrointestinal tract of some of the sperm whales for the passage of hard, sharp objects that are ingested when the whale eats large quantities of marine animals.
  • Uses: Ambergris is used to produce perfumes which have notes of musk. There are also records of it being used to flavor food, in alcoholic beverages and tobacco in some cultures in the past. Ancient Egyptians used it as incense. It is also believed to be used in some traditional medicines.
  • Protection to sperm whales
    • There is a ban on possession and trade of ambergris in countries like the USA, Australia and India. In several other countries, it is a tradable commodity but with limitations.
    • In the Indian context, the sperm whales are a protected species under Schedule 2 of the Wildlife Protection Act and possession or trade of its by-products, including Ambergris and its by products, is illegal under provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972.
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