The 3-week old white rhino calf blindly ran away from poachers who had killed its mother on a game farm in Assen, near Pretoria, and ended up with his head trapped in the V-shaped fork of a young tree.
In its desperate attempts to escape the calf had pawed deep grooves in the ground around the tree and had rubbed its neck raw against the trunks, causing his head to swell up.
A rhino cannot move backwards.
Owner Neels van Rensburg said on Sunday that while freeing the calf, the rescuers noted that it had been slashed over the head and its nose was bleeding, but the extent of its injuries was not known because its head was swollen from being trapped.
He said poachers usually shoot the calves because they keep trying to nuzzle the dead cow while the poachers cut off the rhino horn.
"I heard the little one cry, I saw it was trapped and was hurting, but I could not do anything until the vet arrived,” Van Rensburg said.
Louis Greef, a veterinarian from Thabazimbi, two helpers and a game ranger calmed the calf by plugging its ears and putting a blindfold over its eyes.
It took half an hour to lift its head free from the fork.
After it was freed, the calf was put on a drip and loaded onto a trailer.
Greef said the calf drank milk, but kept turning in circles.
After it had died, a post mortem showed that its skull had been broken.