In the city of Khon Kaen, rising from the plains of the northeastern Thai region of Isaan, I visit a 40-year-old street elephant called Bom and her three-year-old offspring, a big, pushy boy named Minimax. They've been rented out by their owner to two mahouts and three assistants. Although mother and son look to be in fair condition, I notice raw scars on Minimax's forehead and holes in his ears—wounds caused by an ankus, the baton with a hooked metal tip used to enforce commands.
Working the streets is a simple racket: The elephants march along under their mahouts' guidance, extending trunks toward passersby, occasionally adding a curtsy or head waggle while assistants fan out, hawking overpriced bananas or sugarcane to feed the giants. Onlookers pay out of kindness and amusement, and also because of ancient traditions that link elephants to fertile rains and prosperity. Thais still walk under an elephant's belly three times for luck, or to ensure an easy birth.
The midday temperature is sweltering, too hot for the crew to begin working the streets yet, so we linger where the men have strung a tarp over some weeds in a vacant lot. Plastic bags holding rice, chilies, and fruit dangle from branches. The tarp, a ﬁre pit, and a small shrine fashioned from scraps of corrugated metal will be their home for the next month. Bom and Minimax are tethered with a long chain to keep them from wandering while the men doze; they've been up all night watching the elephants forage, making sure they didn't tear into the tasty trees of nearby yards. A ringing sound awakens the sleepers. "Yes, OK," I hear a groggy mahout say, answering his cell phone. "I can take Bom to do a wedding if you get the truck here the night before."
After the men bathe the elephants, we set out to shake some coins loose from the neighborhood. "Zu gluay liang chaang, bor krub!—Please buy bananas for the elephant!" the mahouts cry. "Just one bunch for the little one!" The men duck into shops and restaurants, waving bananas through wrought iron gates at people in courtyards. Minimax pokes his trunk in as well, bobbing his head up and down and squeaking encouragement at potential buyers as he's been taught to do. But few people are about, andafter two hours and ﬁve miles, the men have sold just three bunches of bananas for a total of 60 baht—less than $1.50.
The money was better in Bangkok, where Bom and Minimax could make up to a hundred dollars a night. But the government has begun cracking down on street elephants in cities, and this crew was run out of the capital. The behemoths slow down already jammed trafﬁc and compete with streetside stores for people's pocket money. Forced to walk long distances to reach city centers each day, the elephants get sick from breathing exhaust fumes, drinking polluted water, and having to snatch meals from trash-ﬁlled ditches. They also break legs clambering over concrete abutments and get smacked by automobiles. Though enforcement of the ban was casual at ﬁrst, pressure from the public and Thai organizations demanding more humane treatment of elephants forced city after city to follow through on the rules.