To reach the Tien Shan mountains from the Kyrgyz capital of Bishkek, you head east until you hit the shores of a vast freshwater lake called Issyk Kul, and then you turn southeast, in the direction of the Chinese border—a drive of about ten hours, if the weather is good and the roads are clear. The week I made the trip, last winter, in the company of a snow leopard scientist named Tanya Rosen, it took considerably longer. There was rain in Bishkek, and snow on the plains. Every 20 miles or so, we slowed to allow young shepherd boys, stooped like old shepherd men, to drive their sheep from one side of the ice-slick road to the other. In the distance, the mountains loomed.

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“Kyrgyz traffic jam,” the driver, Zairbek Kubanychbekov, a Kyrgyz staffer with Panthera, the American nonprofit where Rosen is a senior scientist, called out from behind the wheel. Rosen laughed. “You’ll get used to it,” she told me. “I remember one of the very first things I decided when I came to Central Asia was that I wouldn’t allow myself to get annoyed or angry at the pace of travel here. Because if you do, you won’t have any time for anything else. I surrendered.”

Rosen, who is 42, was born in Italy and raised in what was then Yugoslavia. She speaks six languages fluently, another two passably, and her accent, while vaguely European, can be hard to place. In another life, she worked as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan, but in 2005, frustrated with her job, she and her husband separated and she moved to Grand Teton National Park and then to Yellowstone, to work for the U.S. Geological Survey with grizzly bears while earning a master’s degree in social ecology from Yale. An interest in big-clawed bears gave way to an interest in big-clawed cats, and for the past half decade, Rosen has spent almost all her time studying Panthera uncia, or the snow leopard, an animal whose life in the wild, owing to its far-flung habitat and fundamentally elusive nature, remains little known.

In Tajikistan, Rosen and her colleagues at Panthera helped to set up a network of pioneering community-run conservancies—areas controlled and policed not by government rangers but by local people. The programs were a success—recent surveys showed snow leopard counts inside the Tajik conservancies climbing up. Now she was pushing north, into neighboring Kyrgyzstan, where, except in a single nature reserve called Sarychat-Ertash, little research has been done. So much remains unknown that scientists debate even the size of the snow leopard population itself: Some thought there were a thousand cats in the country, others put the number at 300.

As we hurtled toward the Tien Shan, Rosen ran down the list of what she hoped to accomplish: persuade Kyrgyz hunters and farmers to set up new conservancies; install camera traps to get a rough measure of the snow leopard population in key areas, which could be used as a base line to monitor fluctuations in the years to come; and, if she got lucky, maybe even manage to get a radio collar on an adult snow leopard, allowing her team to track its movements, map its range and learn more about how it interacts with prey and its environment.

Our first destination was a hunting camp high in the Tien Shan, where the owner, a man named Azamat, had reported seeing snow leopards in the surrounding peaks. Azamat had invited Rosen to stay a few days and set up a handful of camera traps. We’d pick up Azamat in his village at the foot of the mountains and continue for another hundred miles up to the camp.

We drove for nine hours straight, past mosques with minarets of sapphire blue, tombs of twisted tin and the occasional dolorous camel. The road narrowed to dirt and reverted back to concrete; we descended only to climb again. I sat in the back seat, next to Naryn, Rosen’s year-old taigan, a Kyrgyz cousin of the Afghan hound. Taigans can be trained to kill wolves, but Naryn, with her gentle, citrine eyes, seemed to have acquired her master’s reserved temperament: She spent her time curled up atop the gear—the better to keep an eye on the rest of us.