Often, but not always, the targets for the street-begging mahouts are western tourists. The exotic sight of an elephant in a city environment is attractive to people on holiday and they are often ready to spend a few pounds or dollars to interact with elephants. However most of them are completely unaware of the depths of the suffering of these unfortunate animals. Street elephants are particularly common in Thailand and India, but can be found in other cities throughout Asia.
On the other hand, richer and more unscrupulous criminal elements have been buying up high numbers of elephants and renting them out to people who will take them into the cities. They are using the suffering of these mighty animals to line their pockets.
For more information on this topic: http://www.eleaid.com/index.php?page=streetelephants