Ambergris is a waxy substance that originates in the intestines of a sperm whale and is reportedly used to make high-end perfumes. According to National Geographic, when sperm whales have a "stomach or throat irritant...they cover it in a greasy substance [ambergris] and cast it out."
A district forest officer in India, K. Arivozhi, told The Hindu: "When the animal vomits the mass, it floats a foot below the surface of the sea. Only those with knowledge of it can collect it."
Times of India said that forest officials in Tiruvarur, Tamil Nadu, India set a trap on Saturday after receiving a tip that a "gang" was trying to sell the substance to foreign markets. Officials approached two men believed to be in possession of the ambergris and offered to buy it off of them.
The men fell for the trap and were both arrested after they offered to sell 17 pounds of ambergris to the undercover officers. As of Times of India's last reporting, the men—S. Nijamudeen, 53, and Zahir Hussain, 52—are in Nannilam prison.
According to Vice, the whale vomit was worth approximately $1 million.
It is illegal to use ambergris in the U.S. because the sperm whale is protected; however, it is used often in foreign markets. The substance is also contraband in India.
This is because those who wish to make a profit off of the substance have been known to illegally target sperm whales "in order to obtain the valuable Ambergris from its stomach," The Indian Express reported.
Speaking to Vice, senior manager of wildlife disaster response at Humane Society International, Sumanth Bindumadhav, said that he and other conservationists fear that more people will start targeting sperm whales for the substance, rather than just collecting it when it surfaces.
"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," he said.
The men arrested on Saturday were not the first to be caught with the illegal substance in India in recent months.
Back in June, forest officials in Kerala, India seized nearly 42 pounds of the substance from three men after receiving a tip that a group was planning to sell it in a nearby city, the Hindustan Times said. Those caught with the ambergris told officers that they sourced it from fishermen in Sri Lanka; however, they were all arrested as it is illegal to possess or trade the product in India.
In August, local media reported that police seized 176 pounds of the substance from a group of five in Bengaluru, India.
- Lump of Whale Vomit Set to Make British Couple Thousands
- Strange Blobs Washed Up on Beaches Confirmed As 'Whale Vomit,' Scientists Say
- Fishermen Find $1.5m Worth of 'Whale Vomit,' Lifting Them Out of Poverty
- Whale Vomit Goes for $17,000 at Auction