Previous Page Table of Contents

21 Trade in Corals by Fahmeeda Hanfee1

1 Fahmeeda Hanfee, Traffic-India C/o WWF for Nature New Delhi

Corals are as important to the marine world as tropical rainforests are for mammals. They provide excellent spawning and feeding grounds for fish and other marine species.

In India we have coralline areas either contiguous to the land or near to the shore in Gulf of Kutch and small portion of reef at Mandapam and this makes it easily approachable and more threatened.

Threats are many like:

· Rapid Industrialisation

· Biology (growth rate of hard coral is slow)

· Lack of knowledge/proper legislation

· Oil pollution/siltation

· Fisheries, salt-pans, cement manufacture, chemical industries, navigational activities, oil-terminus etc.

It is well understood that coral reefs are vulnerable to several human activities and natural enemies such as A. planci. But the most important and neglected aspect at the same time is trade in corals.

Generally, corals are collected for their skeleton alone, the living tissues are only rarely of direct value to humans. Some portion of the live corals is the result of increasing demand for aquarium trade.

Corals of commercial value are divided into 3 types:

· Hard corals
· Semi-precious corals and
· Precious corals

Domestic exploitation: Domestic exploitation is mainly for construction purposes.

(A) Hard corals are used as building materials, for

· road construction and building material: Countries known to use corals in this way are Sri Lanka, Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brazil, Maldives and India.

· production of lime, calcium-carbide and cement: In the islands where terrestrial sources of lime are limited corals are particularly heavily exploited.

· other industrial purposes





Wide range of reef-building or reef-associated species from the order Scleractinia, (class Zooantharia), with a few species from the classes Hydrozoa (order Athecata) and Alcyonaria (orders Coenothecalia and Stolonifera).

· Collected by hand, snorkelling and divers.

· Used whole cr cut into blocks for building.

· Crushed or broken for use as aggregate, e.g in road construction.

· Broken and tired for production of lime

· Cleaned and dried, and sold intact as curios and display items.

Cirrhipathes spp. and Antipathes spp. from the order Antipatharia (class Ceriantipatharia).

· Live for aquaria.

· Collected by hand by scuba diving.

· Skeleton made into jewellery and curios.


Mostly Corallium spp. from the class Alcyonaria (order-Gorgonacea

· Collected mainly with dredges (remotely controlled vehicles have been used); also by divers.


· Skeleton made into fine jewellery and carvings; also traditional medicinal uses.

Source: Sue Wells, 1992

(B) Curio collection

· Valued due to their un-usual shapes and attractive colors for souvenirs. Much of it is ultimately exported by tourists when they return home from countries like Sri Lanka, Seychelles, Hawaii, Philippines, Thailand etc.

· decorate houses and ornaments are made e.g. in Asia and middle-east, Black corals have traditionally been made into amulets which are worn to ward off evil spirits and diseases.

· aquarium trade: In India specially in West Bengal and other states having metro cities coral forms a major part of this trade.

(C) Chemical extraction

Sea-fans2* constitute the only known source of Prostoglandins and pharmaceutical industry. India has been exporting sea-fans under the head 'curio' for a long period and by the beginning of 1970's several countries started exporting them in bulk from India. The reason for large scale trade export was discovery of 'prostoglandins'. This triggered of a worldwide hunt for the species.

2* Gorgonids (sea-fans) are a closely associated species which has similar biology as corals. It's exploitation directly effects the corals.

This 'wonder-drug' serves for many a systematic diseases. To meet the demand and increasing popularity India stepped up commercial expatiation and export during 1975 and now also the material is being exported in tons to countries like France, West-Germany, Belgium, USA. Netherlands to mention a few. (Thomas, 1997)

International trade in hard corals

In 1992, an international symposium on coral reefs, estimated that to date people have directly or indirectly caused the death of 5-10% of the world's living reefs. At this rate another 60% could be lost in the next 20-40 years.

A major destination for corals is the U.S.A which accounts for more than a 3rd of the world demand for coral reefs - says a worldwatch Institute report. Philippines is the main supplier to the International market and has exported unworked corals since the mid-1950's.

Table 1: US Imports of corals from India







Weight (tonnes)






Declared import value US$000






Table 2: India's Custom export for 'unworked coral' for 1978 - 82


1 t










1 t







Black corals were listed in App.II in 1981. To protect the most exploited stony corals, CITES parties listed another 17 genera on App.II in 1985.

Despite the ban exports have continued, and U.S is the largest consumer of raw coral. In 1986 it imported nearly 1,400 tons.

As can be seen from table 1 and 2, India is one of the main suppliers to U.S.A. The Indian custom's report records no export of corals in 1986, however, the USA has recorded imports from India of over 40 tons in 1985 and over 60 tons in 1986. That shows the illegal trade of corals from India in 1985-86 was about 100 tons. It is assumed that since then coral has been exported illegally. This shows the difficulty in controlling the trade. That are enforcement is unaware of this illegal trade and that this aspect is overlooked and neglected.

CORAL TRADE-constraints in control

The volume of coral trade is difficult to estimate and monitor because

1. Coral exploitation and trade are very hard to control, in part because it is often collected in offshore areas seldom patrolled by national authorities.

2. When raw coral enters the market, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to identify particular species.

3. Once coral is dried and processed, identification becomes even more difficult.

4. They are often combined with other goods or marine products (especially shells) in official customs statistics.

5. Mixed consignments of shells and corals are labeled as "shell" on trade permits and documents.

6. Where corals are included under a separate category, there are seldom any indications of the type involved.

7. Data cannot be compared and amount of trade cannot be assessed because in the annual reports of CITES, records are as 'pieces' and customs record the quantity by weight.

8. International trade statistics do not include domestic trade (souvenirs, other uses in the country of origin) Thus export/import figures cannot necessarily be equated with total exploitation.


· Approximately 700 species of reef building or reef-associated corals have been described but the numbers involved in trade is un-known.

· Of 200 known species of Black corals (semi-precious) about 10 are used for commercial production of jewelry, carvings and tourist souvenirs. The most commonly used is the unbranched whip-coral (Cirrhipathes anguina) from Indo-pacific region.

· Of precious corals approximately there are 20 species and 6 are of commercial importance.

· Japan is the hub of precious coral market. It is world's largest black coral processing center and leading exporter of black and pink worked coral items.

· Japan imports unworked specimens, primarily from Taiwan, for domestic processing and exports worked corals to Italy and other European countries as well as Taiwan and India.

· Far-East is the leading center of precious coral processing. The supply in large part is from Taiwan, Japan and Philippines imports.

· Bulk of raw Black coral used in commercial processing comes from the Philippines. Whip coral (Cirrhipathes anguina an Indo-pacific species also makes up much of the international Black coral trade.

· At the height of the coral trade, in mid 1970's the Philippines exported over 1,980 tons in a single year. Out of which three quarters had gone to US.

· United States is the largest consumer of raw coral and in 1986 it imported nearly 1,400 tons.

· In 1986, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, Fiji and India, each exported over 50 tons of crude coral to the United States.

· In Yemen, crushed Tubipora is sold in spice shops.


· Basic research on trade is required, (no. of species involved, volume trade routes etc.

· International cooperation in research programs

· Strengthening Management and enforcement (closed seasons, closed and open areas for collection, minimum size limits, quotas)

· Fisheries departments should collect records of catch and effort for coral fisheries.

· Importing countries should introduce appropriate controls in order to respect the legislation of countries which have restricted/prohibited coral export.

· Countries should try where possible to provide a more detailed breakdown of imports and exports of corals, separate from marine curios.

· Awareness campaign at tourist spots, shops, airlines, tour-operators, hotels, resorts, marine park interpretive centers etc.

· Customs officials should be notified and efforts made to ensure that they have ready access to experts who can identify corals.

· Countries involved in trade should work with CITES to enhance coral identification tools and procedures to enable wildlife and customs inspectors to more readily and accurately check and record coral taxa in trade.


When after considerable international pressure coral exports from Philippines dropped, they had almost lost 70% of the coral reefs. Suddenly Indonesia began to increase its supplies to the world market. India may be the next victim if not legal export, illegal trade.

Previous Page Top of Page