The North Chinese leopard (Panthera pardus japonensis), the least‐known big cat, disappeared in most historical range for decades, following the development of modern civilization. Unfortunately, we have scarce knowledge about the status of this big cat so far, apart from anecdotal reports. In this study, we investigated density, distribution, and habitat use of the leopard, the apex predator, in a complex forest landscape in the Loess Plateau. We used a camera‐trapping network to obtain population estimates for leopards over 2 years through spatially explicit capture–recapture models. Our results, based on maximum likelihood and Bayesian/MCMC methods, reveal that the largest wild population of the leopard was found widely distributed in remnant forests in central Loess plateau. The population is increasing in our study area, and the density of leopards (1.70 (SE = 0.48) − 2.40 (SE = 0.67)/100 km2) is higher than other areas of China. According to the analysis of 2 seasonal occupancy models, prey species drive partially the leopard habitat use, predicting that the big cat thrives from the recovery of prey community. However, human disturbances, especially oil wells, seem to have negative impacts on the habitat use of leopards. Specifically, it is necessary to have joint efforts by the government and researchers to improve human disturbances management and prey species population density, as well as strengthen the investment in research on the North Chinese leopard, which could all further strengthen protection ability and ensure the long‐term survival of this species.